David Cameron struggled at a European Union summit on Friday to overcome last pockets of resistance to a deal designed to keep Britain in the 28-nation bloc, with diplomats forecasting an agreement within hours.
“We are moving forward but we are not yet at a stage where a deal is almost done,” a British official told reporters after the British Prime Minister held all-night negotiations with top EU officials and a handful of leaders with specific objections to the draft text.
Cameron was hoping to fly home and chair a cabinet meeting later on Friday to endorse what he calls a “new settlement” with the EU, setting in motion plans to call a referendum on Britain’s future in the Union, probably for June 23.
The stakes are high for both Britain and the EU, with opinion polls showing voters almost evenly split.
The risks of Cameron’s strategy were highlighted on Friday when an opinion poll showed the campaign to leave the bloc had a two-percent lead with 36 percent support. The TNS poll showed 34 percent of British voters wanted to stay in the bloc, 7 percent would not vote and 23 percent were undecided.
All sides at the summit said the toughest issue remained Britain’s drive to restrict welfare benefits for migrant workers from other EU countries, with east European states fighting to preserve the rights of expatriates already working in the UK and elsewhere.
Summit chairman Donald Tusk, who had hoped to wrap up a deal at an “English breakfast” at 10 am (0900 GMT), pushed back the resumption of the group meeting until after 1.30 pm (1230 GMT) for what aides dubbed an “English lunch”.
Tusk held a series of so-called ‘confessional”‘meetings with individual leaders to try to clear remaining obstacles in the meantime.
Diplomats said differences with France over London’s demands for a mechanism to protect its financial centre from intrusive eurozone regulation had been narrowed down to just two words.
Cameron has promised Britons he will exclude new European immigrants from in-work benefits for four years and cut child benefit for workers whose families remain at home.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, representing that group, was battling to prevent the measures being applied to more than a million EU workers already in Britain and to avoid other countries piggy-backing on the child benefit cut.
“The Czech Republic aims for its clear time limitation, exclusion of a possibility to implement it permanently, and limiting its application to the UK if possible,” Sobotka said in a statement.
However, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said his country too was keen to apply a plan to index child benefit for EU workers whose children remain in their native country to their home country’s cost of living if Britain won.
Rasmussen claimed paternity of the idea, telling reporters: “It was a flower in my garden.”
Cameron was keen to show British voters he was fighting hard to secure a deal which he has called “the best of both worlds”.
“I was here till five o’clock this morning working through this and we’ve made some progress but there’s still no deal,” he told reporters on Friday morning as he returned for more talks after a short rest.
“As I’ve said I’ll only do a deal if we get what Britain needs. So we are going to get back in there, and we are going to do some more work and I’ll do everything I can.”
Britain is already the EU’s most semi-detached member, having opted out of joining the euro single currency, the Schengen zone of passport-free travel and many areas of police and judicial cooperation.
Many leaders said they felt they were at a historic turning point for European integration.
No country has ever voted to leave the Union. Britain is the EU’s second-largest economy and one of its two permanent members on the UN Security Council. Its exit would end the vision of the EU as the natural home for European democracies and reverse the continent’s post-World War Two march toward “ever closer union”.
Belgium, the most federalist of EU members, was pressing for a clause to ensure the deal with Britain would automatically cease to exist in case of a vote to leave – to make sure there was no possibility of a second renegotiation.
Diplomats said the idea was attractive to Cameron, who is seeking to convince Britons this is a last-chance vote, and might well be included in the final text.
The issue has divided Cameron’s Conservative Party for decades, crippling his 1990s predecessor John Major and bringing down his hero Margaret Thatcher.
Some Conservatives have criticised the reforms he is negotiating in Brussels as trivial, although most senior party figures are likely to join him in campaigning to stay in if he wins the concessions he is seeking.
Still, politicians present at the summit centre in Brussels predicted eventual agreement.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite played down the extended bilateral negotiations as necessary posturing to make a deal seem hard-fought.
“A deal is visible, a deal is possible but the timing will depend on how much drama some countries would like to see,” she told reporters.
“We would like to see Britain in Europe and we would like to help the British people to make a decision, but no matter what face-lifting or face-saving we perform here, it is only up to the British people to decide.”
One of the most virulent opponents of Britain’s EU membership belittled the diplomatic arm-wrestling.
“I simply cannot believe that at some point today Cameron will not get some kind of concession because they know that if Cameron is sent home totally humiliated, Brexit will have got a bit closer,” said Nigel Farage of Britain’s anti-EU UKIP party.
Britain’s largely eurosceptic press depicted Cameron as begging or pleading, the Daily Mail describing him as “rattled”.
“Shambles as embattled PM’s deal is watered down,” its front page read.
French President Francois Hollande, backed by Germany, has pushed for amendments to ensure Britain cannot veto deeper integration by the euro zone countries or give City of London banks a competitive advantage through regulation.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was also seeking to limit the impact of giving Britain an undertaking that the EU’s treaty goal of “ever closer union” did not commit it to political integration.