BRUSSELS — British Prime Minister David Cameron closed in on a difficult reform deal with European Union leaders at a summit on Thursday but warned there would be hard work to seal an accord by February as hoped.
Cameron laid out his plans at a summit dinner in Brussels and appealed to them to work with him on his demands including a freeze on benefits for EU migrants, before he holds a referendum on a possible "Brexit" by the end of 2017.
"Really good progress has been made but it is going to be tough," Cameron told a news conference after he pleaded with his counterparts to work with him on the issue.
"Nothing is certain in life or in Brussels but there is a pathway to a deal in February," Cameron added.
EU President Donald Tusk said the other 27 leaders agreed to work for a compromise despite reservations over Cameron's reforms after what he described as a "make or break" summit at the end of a crisis-filled year.
"I am far more optimistic than before the meeting," Tusk, the former Polish premier, told a news conference. "Leaders voiced their concerns but also demonstrated willingness to look for compromise."
The turnaround came just hours after both Tusk and French President Francois Hollande warned Cameron that his migrant benefit demands were "unacceptable," with many states seeing them as discriminatory and in breach of the EU's core ideals.
Cameron's other reform demands – protections for countries that are not in the eurozone, an exemption from more EU integration and greater economic competitiveness – are far less problematic for his counterparts.
Germany's powerful Chancellor Angela Merkel held open the possibility that the EU's founding treaties could be changed at a later date to accommodate Conservative leader Cameron's demands, which are partly driven by eurosceptics at home in Britain.
"If we need treaty changes, and I believe this could be necessary, than we all agree that they do not have to happen now but according to the British proposal that they can take place later," Merkel said.
A similar solution – delayed treaty changes – were used to persuade Denmark to stay in the EU in 1992.
France's Hollande however said he was opposed to treaty change.
"It seems important to me that we must not touch the treaties, and this issue must not touch the treaties because it calls free movement into question," Hollande told a news conference.
The British dilemma stole the limelight from fresh efforts to tackle the migration crisis that has made this year one of the toughest in the bloc's history and triggered many of the record 12 summits the leaders have held since January.
With Europe already deeply split by a year that has seen a record inflow of nearly one million mainly Syrian refugees, crises in Greece and Ukraine as well as terror attacks in Paris, Cameron's demands have largely been seen as a distraction.
New border force
Tusk said leaders agreed to push through by June 2016 a plan for a new border and coastguard force that could intervene in member countries – even without their consent – in order to shore up the EU external frontier.
He said they also agreed to protect the Schengen area, the cherished European passport-free zone that symbolises that ideal of free movement but has been threatened by the huge movements of people across the continent.
But officials said some had voiced concerns at the national sovereignty issues raised by the new border force, such as Poland and Greece, the country that has seen by far the biggest number of migrant arrivals.
Wide rifts have emerged over the migrant crisis after Merkel opened Germany's doors to Syrian refugees, causing huge strains on transit countries and prompting several to suspend the Schengen rules and reintroduce border checks.
Playing down divisions, Merkel hailed a "very good" meeting between 11 EU states and the Turkish prime minister on the sidelines of the main summit to discuss a plan to resettle thousands of Syrian war refugees directly from camps in Turkey.
But an EU report on Thursday said that a three-billion-euro (US$3.2-billion) deal with Ankara in November to keep more refugees on Turkish soil had so far had little effect on the number of people crossing to Greece.
Other plans have been bogged down, with a deal for member states to take in 160,000 refugees from overburdened Greece and Italy resulting in just 208 people being relocated so far. — AFP