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Cameron eyes 'Brexit' breakthrough

December 18, 2015

At the end of an EU summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he is confident of winning reforms to the UK's relationship with Europe in the coming year. However, his proposals face some resistance.

EU-Gipfel: Pressekonferenz David Cameron
Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman

Cameron said on Friday that his government would achieve the result it needed in the next year, citing "good progress" made at the EU summit.

The prime minister, who presented his case on Thursday evening, said he believed he would clinch an accord on his reform demands ahead of a planned UK referendum that is set to take place before the end of 2017. Voters will be asked if they want to remain in the EU or leave it, a so-called "Brexit."

"I believe that 2016 will be the year we achieve something really vital, fundamentally changing the UK's relationship with the EU and finally addressing the concerns of the British people about our membership," Cameron told a press conference.

"Then it will be for the British people to decide whether we will remain or leave," he said.

Many in the prime minister's own Conservative Party are keen to see Britain head to the exit door, while Cameron himself has said he believes it would be in Britain's interests to remain in a reformed bloc.

Four key areas for change

He is calling for changes in four policy areas, or "baskets," ahead of a UK referendum on whether to remain a member of the 28-nation bloc. They include greater protection for the interest of EU members that, like Britain, do not use the euro currency, as well as a greater focus on economic competitiveness and an opt-out from "ever-closer union."

However, foremost is a request for EU migrants working in Britain to only become eligible for benefits - such as social housing or welfare payments - after first having worked in the country for four years.

Cameron said on Thursday that he had secured "a pathway to agreement." A British government source told the Reuters news agency that negotiators had been told to adopt a pragmatic approach, with a flexible approach to legal detail, to hammer out the issue.

Lukewarm response so far

Certain member states - including many of Cameron's traditionally euroskeptic allies in eastern Europe view that policy as discriminatory. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - which have significant numbers of citizens working in England - said they "will not support any solutions which would be discriminatory or limit free movement."

The EU's top officials, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, have cast doubt on some of the proposed reforms.

Brüssel EU-Gipfel Merkel Cameron
If Merkel appeared cautious, Hollande was almost dismissive in his responseImage: Reuters/Y. Herman

Angela Merkel also struck a cautious tone after Cameron presented his case on Thursday evening. She said there was a willingness to hear London's concerns but that there were some core values, like free movement and non-discrimination of EU citizens, that could not be amended.

French President Francois Hollande was even more direct about what he considered Britain's "unacceptable" wish for special rights within the EU.

As well discussing Cameron's Brexit demands, delegates at the two-day summit spoke about the migrant crisis and Nord Stream gas pipeline deal that would see gas pumped from Russia directly to Germany.

On Friday, they covered measures to counter terrorism in the wake of the November 13 Paris attacks. They agreed on quick action to better restrict the financing of extremists, including via the imposition of asset freezes.

rc/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)