As a crucial summit of the European Council began in Brussels on Thursday, optimism mingled with scepticism over Prime Minister David Cameron’s months of intense negotiations to revise Britain’s terms of engagement with the European Union.
There was a gnawing sense it could all go awry, as some members of European parliament described as “blackmail” Britain’s threat to leave the EU if it does not get what it wants. Several European leaders remain unconvinced of Britain’s case for reform.
The council meeting is scheduled for Thursday and Friday, but if the deal offered Britain earlier this month is approved on Thursday (the session begins at 1630 GMT), Cameron is likely to hold an emergency cabinet meeting on Friday to announce the date of a referendum on remaining in the EU.
Reflecting the hope and challenges before the council, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker hoped a deal could be reached but conceded that several issues remained to be agreed. Some countries such as Germany are keen for Britain to stay in the EU.
He said: “I remain quite confident that we will have a deal during this European Council. We have to sort out a certain number of questions. And I’m convinced that Britain will be a constructive and active member of the European Union.”
He added: “We don’t know exactly how things are going to play out. That remains to be seen.”
Leaked documents from official talks suggest that France is resisting attempts to secure protection for the City of London by giving non-eurozone nations more power to stall financial regulation.
Cameron’s plan to cut the amount of child benefit EU migrants can send back to their home countries would apply across the EU, which would be resisted by Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Rival camps (Remain/Leave EU) are keenly awaiting the outcome of the council meeting, with leading figures such as London mayor Boris Johnson and members of Cameron’s cabinet yet to openly state which side they will campaign for.
June 23 is being mentioned as the most likely date for the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.