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Opinion: Cameron's gamble

British Prime Minister David Cameron is all in favor of EU reforms - hoping they will sway Britons to stay in the bloc in a referendum. The chances are good they will, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.

There's a bit of deja vu in the British Parliament. Forget the coalition government with all the compromises that entailed - once again, the Conservatives rule alone.

David Cameron received a clear mandate, and that includes his EU reform agenda. Should he succeed, Cameron appears to think, his fellow countrymen will no longer have a reason to vote for Britain's exit from the union when the day of the referendum rolls along.

That referendum is scheduled to take place no later than the end of 2017, but it's likely to take place even sooner. Cameron himself has endorsed the idea.

So has the opposition: Andy Burnham, who stands a good chance of becoming the new head of the Labour Party now that Ed Miliband has stepped down, also backs an early referendum, despite the fact that his party has so far adamantly opposed a popular vote. Ultimately, Labour also sees Britain's future within a reformed EU.

And Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has also spoken out in favor of an early referendum, without mincing words about what he thinks the outcome should be: One of the biggest advantages for the British economy is "its access to the European market, the largest in the world," he told the BBC.

The Scottish play

Christoph Hasselbach

DW editor Christoph Hasselbach

No one needs to convince London banks and most major companies of the economic value of EU membership. Perhaps, however, the strongest political argument in the country is fear the United Kingdom could break apart.

The Scottish National Party may have lost a referendum on Scotland's independence last year, but it won almost all of Scotland's seats in the general election. The party is left-wing and strongly pro-European.

Should a majority of British citizens vote in favor of exiting the EU, and a majority of Scots vote in favor of staying in it, Scotland would have a strong argument at hand to break free from its union with England.

That in turn would be a tragedy for Cameron's Conservatives. In order to keep his United Kingdom together, he won't easily risk a break with the European Union.

Sympathizers in Europe

It remains to be seen whether he can convince other Europeans of the necessity of reforms. There have been some signs of agreement, though not necessarily from among the first echelons of EU governments - but that could be a tactic.

In France, for instance, State Secretary for European Affairs Harlem Desir lashed out at the European Commission's alleged love of regulation: "We agree it's not a good thing for the Commission to be drawing up laws on everything from olive oil containers to toilet flushers." He added that there's scope for EU reform without having to change its treaties.

When Brussels oversteps the mark, EU national parliaments must have the right to "fend off transgressions," former German President Roman Herzog told the weekly magazine "Focus." Andreas Scheuer, leader of Germany's Christian Social Union, regards the outcome of the British election as a "clear signal that the time has come to think about the kind of Europe we want." Scandinavia and the Netherlands have expressed similar ideas.

Even though Cameron has made no reform proposals, the matter has already met with a positive underlying sentiment in many countries.

Cameron the brave

The fun and games are over, however, if Cameron should try to relinquish the freedoms of the internal market, especially the free movement of people. But this is a point for which the British - as well as the Irish and the Danes - already have special rights that allow them to stay out of EU actions, as refugee policy has once again shown.

The greatest danger could be Cameron's demeanor on the European stage. The arrogant Old Etonian and descendant of royalty has even managed to alienate his friends in Brussels. If he intends to appeal to potential partners, he must turn silent agreement into real support. Above all, he must now make sound reform proposals and avoid anything that can be rejected outright because it would eat away at Europe's substance.

Many leaders secretly admire Cameron for his courage to hold a referendum in a country known for its Euroskeptics. No matter what the outcome, the referendum will provide desperately needed clarity in the matter. The EU as a whole now has an opportunity for clarification on a pan-European level, not just on a national one.

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