BRUSSELS – British Prime Minister David Cameron has won a hard-fought deal for a less intrusive European Union after two days of tense talks with EU leaders, a commitment he said he needed to persuade UK voters the country should stay in the bloc.
The agreement is seen as a key stepping stone to the in-out referendum in Britain on continued EU membership that could come as soon as this summer.
After 31 hours of negotiations, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite wrote on Twitter: “Agreement #UKinEU done. Drama over.”
EU President Donald Tusk added there was “unanimous support” for the “new settlement.” The deal would only be enacted if Britain stays an EU member.
The summit ran into overtime Friday as Cameron was pushing his demands for more autonomy to the limit at a dinner with the 28 national leaders.
“David Cameron fought hard for Britain. Good deal for UK and EU. Congrats!” tweeted Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen.
Earlier, Cameron had met with European leaders, including EU President Donald Tusk, Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, trying to close the gap on issues including financial governance and welfare benefits.
Grybauskaite said the deal should give the British public a clear choice.
“But no matter what we do here, no matter what face-lifting or face-saving we perform here, it is up to the British people to decide,” she said.
The deal offers guarantees to the nine EU countries, including Britain, that do not use the shared euro currency, that they will not be sidelined, and makes tweaks aimed at giving national parliaments more power.
Most of the tensions surrounded a relatively minor change: a move to suspend or restrict benefit payments made to workers from other EU countries.
Immigration is an especially sensitive point for British voters, because Britain has attracted hundreds of thousands of workers from Eastern Europe in the past decade, drawn by the prospect of higher-paying jobs. The EU immigrants can also claim child tax credits and other benefits in Britain, which Cameron’s government says is straining his budget.
Cameron has proposed reducing one payment – the child benefit, given to all low- and middle-income families with children – to migrants from other EU nations.
Cameron has also run into unexpectedly firm resistance from France on financial regulation. French President Francois Hollande insisted Friday that Britain should not be given any “right of veto or blockage” and that all EU countries should have rules limiting speculation and avoiding new financial crises.
The 19 EU countries that share the euro currency worry that protections for Britain and the eight other non-eurozone nations would offer unfair advantage to Britain’s financial centre, the City of London.
Hollande had also warned that too-generous concessions to Britain could prompt other countries to seek special rules, too.
Despite the tensions, EU leaders ultimately wanted Britain, a major world economy, to stay in the bloc – a point argued Friday by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
A British exit “would be bad news for the EU – but also for the U.K. It would end up as a mid-sized economy somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.
With the deal, the referendum in Britain is expected to be close and hard-fought. Opponents have said Cameron’s demands of the EU are too weak.