BRUSSELS — EU president Donald Tusk said he expects a deal at a summit in February to keep Britain in the bloc, despite a lack of consensus over London's demands to limit migrant benefits.
In a letter to European Union leaders, Tusk urged them to speed up negotiations on Prime Minister David Cameron's reform proposals, warning that uncertainty about Britain's future was destabilising the 28-nation bloc.
The most troublesome issue for Cameron's counterparts is his demand that EU migrants who come to work in Britain must live there for four years before qualifying for welfare benefits, he added.
Cameron, who has promised to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership by the end of 2017, had hoped to get a deal by a summit later this month but has now acknowledged that will not happen.
"The December European Council (summit) should address all the political dilemmas related to this process. Based on a substantive political discussion we should be able to prepare a concrete proposal to be finally adopted in February," Tusk wrote.
"Uncertainty about the future of the UK in the European Union is a destabilising factor. That is why we must find a way to answer the British concerns as quickly as possible," he added.
Cameron last month set out demands on four main issues surrounding sovereignty and migration and has warned that he could campaign for Britain to leave the bloc if he does not get his way.
"The whole renegotiation is difficult, it's taking time, it's tough, what I'm asking for, because I want a better deal for Britain and a better deal for Europe," Cameron said.
"But I think Donald Tusk's letter is encouraging in that the British reform agenda is being taken on, it's going to be discussed and I hope it will be brought to a successful conclusion."
Tusk – who said he was acting as an "honest broker" between Britain and its EU partners – said the toughest issue was the fact that there was "presently no consensus" on Cameron's demands on migrant benefits.
This issue was "the most delicate and will require a substantive political debate at our December meeting," he added.
Cameron says he needs this change to control immigration but his peers argue that it is discriminatory and undermines a key achievement – freedom of movement for all EU citizens.
The EU president sounded more optimistic on the other issues, saying that on Britain's demand for protection for countries that are not part of the euro currency, they were examining a "mechanism" to allow them to raise their concerns.
But Britain and other non-members of the 19-nation eurozone would not have a veto, he added.
Tusk said "everybody agrees" on the need to promote economic competitiveness, as Britain has demanded.
There was also "wide agreement" that the commitment in the EU's treaties to "ever closer union" actually allows for "various paths of integration" – though he did not mention Cameron's demands for a legally binding opt-out for Britain.
"Consultations have shown that the issues raised by the British prime minister are difficult. At the same time there is a will on the part of all sides to find solutions," Tusk said.
Cameron said last week after a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he had given up hope of an agreement at the December summit. — AFP