By VICE News and Reuters
It was a very long night. European leaders managed to argue until 5.30am over Britain’s place in the European Union on Thursday and still not reach an agreement.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was back at the negotiating table in Brussels at 10am on Friday for the remainder of a two-day extraordinary summit aimed at persuading fellow EU leaders to let the UK get special treatment regarding its place in the bloc.
It was part of Cameron’s Conservative Party election manifesto to renegotiate Britain’s place in Europe, and he wants four key changes: that EU citizens coming to work in Britain have their access to welfare restricted; that national parliaments have more power to reject unpopular EU laws; that countries that are not part of the euro currency zone are better protected financially; and that administrative red tape is cut in order to aid competition and trade.
Fellow leaders and diplomats said an agreement still seemed feasible by the end of Friday, but some said the outstanding issues were proving tough to crack, holding up the process.
If Cameron gets the deal he wants, he will return to the UK to launch a campaign to persuade the British public to vote to stay in the EU in a referendum that will likely take place in June.
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Thursday’s late-night dinner, that lasted more than five hours, was devoted to renewed arguments over the response to Europe’s migration crisis. This meant that a plan for an “English breakfast” on Friday, for all 28 leaders to try and hammer out a final deal, turned into “brunch,” then “lunch,” scheduled for 1.30pm.
Many leaders said they felt they were at a historic turning point for European integration. No country has ever voted to leave the union, and a British exit could deal a blow to the UK economy and certainly damage the EU’s standing and self-confidence.
The leaders of France, Belgium, and the Czech Republic argued the case on the various points of most resistance to a draft agreement that was finalized earlier this month between Cameron and European Council President and summit chairman Donald Tusk.
Paris has pushed for amendments to ensure Britain cannot veto actions by the euro zone countries or give City of London banks competitive advantage through regulation.
A group of eastern European states chaired by the Czechs is trying to hold back how far their citizens can be denied welfare benefits in Britain, or have family allowances reduced, as part of Cameron’s drive to cut immigration.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is also fighting a rearguard action for the federalist cause to limit damage done to European plans for “ever closer union” by giving euroskeptic Britain a guarantee it need never share more sovereignty.
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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said there had been some backward steps after a round-table session to discuss London’s demands of reform in the EU before dinner. “I’m always confident but a bit less optimistic than when I arrived,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “The wish is there to keep Britain as a member of the European Union… It became clear that agreement will not be easy for many, but that the will is there.”
How far the reform package will sway British voters either way is unclear. Cameron’s left-wing Labour opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, was also in Brussels where he echoed Conservative euroskeptics in describing the likely immigration deal as a “theatrical sideshow.” But Labour plans to campaign to remain in the bloc.
Cameron told leaders on Thursday evening: “The question of Britain’s place in Europe has been allowed to fester for too long and it is time to deal with it.
“If we can reach agreement here that is strong enough to persuade the British people to support the UK’s membership of the EU then we have an opportunity to settle this issue for a generation,” he said, describing the new relationship as a flexible one that allows countries to “live and let live.”
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