BRUSSELS Prime Minister David Cameron called on EU leaders on Thursday to help him settle the question of Europe for a generation by agreeing a "credible" deal he can sell to the British public and stay in the European Union.
At 'now or never' talks in Brussels, leaders worked to overcome differences on the most contentious areas of Cameron's renegotiation of Britain's membership deal - demands for financial safeguards and curbs to some benefits for EU migrants.
All acknowledged there was work to be done, but most leaders appeared keen to give Cameron a deal which he can hail as a victory before starting a campaign to keep Britain in the EU at a referendum widely expected to be held in late June.
"The question of Britain's place in Europe has been allowed to fester for too long and it is time to deal with it," Cameron told other leaders at the first working session of the two-day summit.
"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".
On arrival, Cameron said he thought that hard work and goodwill would help him clinch "a better deal for Britain" - one that could convince an increasingly sceptical British public to vote to stay in the 28-member bloc.
Doubters, including many within Cameron's own Conservative party, have dismissed the changes he is seeking as watered-down "thin gruel" that will do little to alter Britain's relationship with Europe.
The stakes are high. A vote to leave would not only transform Britain's future in world affairs but would also shake the EU, which has struggled to maintain unity over migration and financial crises, by ripping away its second-largest economy and one of its two main military powers.
Under pressure from business to settle the matter and end uncertainty that has weighed on markets and companies, and with opinion polls suggesting that the 'out' campaign is gaining ground, Cameron wants to hold the vote as soon as possible.
EACH "WILL HAVE HIS OWN DRAMA"
EU leaders are also eager to settle the British renegotiation, feeling that if they fail to agree terms this time, they will lose the opportunity to turn to more pressing concerns, such as the refugee crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that despite some obstacles remaining, she had "the attitude that we gladly want to do everything to create the conditions so Britain can remain a part of the European Union".
French President Francois Hollande also said he wanted Britain to stay in the EU but not to the detriment of the EU.
Summing up how many saw the evening talks playing out, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said: "I think everybody will have his own drama. And then we will agree."
Cameron has spent weeks touring Europe seeking agreement on his reforms, so he can hold a referendum and try to put to rest the divisions over Europe that have dogged his party for years.
He has encountered resistance on the way, with some officials tired that Britain wanted to deepen its 'semi-detached' status from the EU - it is not in the 19 member euro zone and has not signed up to the open borders Schengen area.
But Cameron says he must renegotiate to meet the demands of the British public and has demanded change in four areas: measures to curb migration, safeguards to protect London's financial sector from decisions binding countries that use the euro, for Britain to be excluded from the EU's official pursuit of "ever closer union", and for greater competition.
ENGLISH BREAKFAST PLANNED
EU officials have said some leaders are still concerned that Cameron's demands will encourage other countries to ask for changes to their membership agreements. But a new draft signalled that, especially on migration, any solution would be tailor-made to take note of Britain's specific welfare system.
There will be debate over the wording of the safeguards for London's financial sector - which France fears could give Britain an advantage - on future amendments to the EU's founding treaties, and on how long Cameron can curb welfare payments.
East European nations balked at Cameron's welfare plans, saying they discriminated against their citizens. Some leaders suggest there may be compromise on one of the main points: temporary reductions in payments to low-paid workers recently arrived from other EU states.
But there was little movement on another issue: the provision of welfare payments for children abroad of parents living in Britain. Britain wants these indexed to prices in the countries where the children live, but several countries are concerned that this would be adopted by other wealthier nations.
With the prospect of late-night talks on Thursday, summit chairman Donald Tusk has scheduled an "English breakfast" on Friday in the hope of a final compromise to help stop Britain from leaving.
But even before the deal was reached, sceptics back home in Britain were dismissing the package of proposals.
"David Cameron is in Brussels for a row about a trivial set of demands none of which will return control back to Britain," said Matthew Elliott, head of one of the main groups campaigning to leave. "Despite all the bluster, the arguments today will be inconsequential."
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Robert-Jan Bartunek, Philip Blenkinsop, Meredith McGrath, Alissa de Carbonnel and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Tatiana Jancarikova in Bratislava, Editing by Janet McBride, Giles Elgood and Peter Graff)
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