Talks with EU gaining momentum: Cameron

Mr David Cameron with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel during the EU leaders summit in Brussels on Thursday. The British PM left the negotiations with an optimistic message about the prospects for a deal at the next European summit in February.
Mr David Cameron with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel during the EU leaders summit in Brussels on Thursday. The British PM left the negotiations with an optimistic message about the prospects for a deal at the next European summit in February.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS • Prime Minister David Cameron said his bid to change Britain's relationship with the European Union is gathering momentum after fellow leaders signalled a willingness to find compromises on his demand for curbs on welfare.

Rather than the fight that many analysts said Mr Cameron needed to satisfy British voters, the prime minister left negotiations in Brussels on Thursday night with an optimistic message about the prospects for a deal at the next European summit in February.

"There is momentum - there was enormous support in the room for finding ways of keeping the UK in the EU," Mr Cameron told reporters. "We've taken a big step forward for a better deal for Britain, but there's still a lot of hard work to be done."

The main sticking point remains Mr Cameron's determination to make citizens of other EU countries ineligible for welfare payments until they have been in the UK for four years.

The British PM has pledged to seek to overhaul the bloc before an in-or-out referendum on British membership to be held by the end of 2017.

Mr Cameron's fellow leaders echoed his view that a deal can be reached, even though they did not make any substantial concessions on the night.

"Tonight was a make or break moment," EU president Donald Tusk told reporters after the meeting. "Leaders voiced their concerns, but also demonstrated willingness to look for compromises. I am much more optimistic than before today's meeting."

The UK is seeking reform across four areas - competition, ever closer union and protection for non-euro nations alongside the changes to access to welfare.

Leaders signalled they are willing to accept a compromise similar to opt-outs from certain EU rules that Denmark won in 1992, an EU official said on condition of anonymity.

Polls of voter sentiment in the UK vary widely on whether the ballot would yield an "in" or "out" answer.

The latest, an online poll sponsored by former Conservative lawmaker Michael Ashcroft, suggested British voters are more inclined to vote to leave the EU than to remain inside it - with up to a third still to make up their minds.

It was published on Thursday, one day after two telephone polls gave the opposite result.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2015, with the headline 'Talks with EU gaining momentum: Cameron'. Print Edition | Subscribe