BRUSSELS • European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said he was confident of a deal to keep Britain from crashing out of the European Union (EU) despite sharp divisions among leaders at a crucial summit that began yesterday.
Despite key questions about British Prime Minister David Cameron's demands remaining unresolved at the start of the tense two-day summit, Mr Juncker played up the chances of an agreement to avoid a so-called "Brexit".
"I'm quite confident that we will have a deal during this European Council. We have to sort out a certain number of questions," said the former Luxembourg prime minister, who now heads the powerful executive arm of the EU.
Mr Cameron has demanded a series of reforms that will return powers to London ahead of a British referendum on whether to leave the EU. He has won crucial backing from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe's power broker, who said Berlin had shared his concerns "for many years".
The German leader, during a speech to the Lower House of Parliament in Berlin, said: "Many points here are about wishes which are understandable, and that one is entitled to."
But four eastern European states, which have hundreds of thousands of citizens in Britain, oppose Mr Cameron's call for restrictions on welfare benefits to EU migrants working in the country, while France leads opposition to protections for countries like Britain that do not use the euro.
In a demonstration of the likely battles that lie ahead, a leaked draft of the summit conclusions still had a number of key passages in brackets, including those related to the "euro-outs" and migrant benefits. That means these issues have not been resolved despite weeks of tense negotiations.
If the summit fails to clinch a deal, Mr Cameron has said anything is possible, including Britain becoming the first country to quit the bloc after an in-or-out referendum that could be held in June.
EU president Donald Tusk on Wednesday said there was "no guarantee" of an accord.
Mr Tusk, in an invitation letter to leaders posted on the EU Council website, said: "After my consultations in the last hours, I have to state frankly: There is still no guarantee that we will reach an agreement.
"We differ on some political issues and I am fully aware that it will be difficult to overcome them. Therefore, I urge you to remain constructive."
In London, a British government official said Mr Cameron had taken "a very personal involvement" in the talks and now "this is crunch time".
The British leader has staked his political survival on winning the vote, in the hope of ending a feud over Britain's place in the EU that has plagued his Conservative Party for decades.
Britain's top share index fell yesterday to end a four-day winning streak, led lower by major mining stocks and hit by growing concern over the potential impact of Britain's exit from the EU. The FTSE 100 index retreated 0.2 per cent to 6,020.11 points, underperforming the broader European market.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS