BRUSSELS – British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday sealed a deal for “special status” in the EU after a marathon summit, paving the way for him to campaign to stay in the bloc in a historic referendum.
The unanimous agreement came after two days and nights of intense negotiations in Brussels, despite European leaders digging in their heels on all the major reforms Cameron sought.
Cameron was to hold an emergency Cabinet meeting on Saturday as he embarks on the difficult process of selling the deal at home ahead of the referendum, expected on June 23.
“I’ve negotiated a deal to give the U.K. special status in the European Union,” Cameron told a news conference. “I will be campaigning with all my heart and soul to persuade the British people to remain in the reformed European Union that we have secured today.”
He said the deal contained a seven-year “emergency brake” on welfare payments for EU migrants and meant Britain would be “permanently out of ever-closer union.”
While Britain’s place in the EU now rests in the hands of the British public, the deal removes one major headache for the bloc as it faces the biggest migration crisis in Europe’s history.
EU President Donald Tusk, who brokered the deal, said the “unanimous” agreement “strengthens Britain’s special status in the EU” and is “legally binding and irreversible.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, said the accord was a “fair compromise.”
“I do not think that we gave too much to Great Britain,” she said.
French President Francois Hollande insisted that the British deal contained “no exceptions to the rules” of the EU.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, the first to break the news of the agreement, tweeted, “Drama over.”
Yet the drama is only just beginning for Cameron as he battles Euroskeptic members of his Conservative Party and a hostile popular press calling for Britain to quit the EU.
Opinion polls suggest the British public is finely balanced on whether to back a “Brexit” from the EU.
Cameron was to fly back to London, where after a Cabinet meeting on Saturday morning, the referendum campaign was to whir into life as ministers who want Britain to leave would be allowed to speak out for the first time.
Cameron, who was re-elected in May, had said that without a satisfactory agreement, he would have walked away from Brussels with all options open.
The deal was reached late on Friday after the EU’s two top figures, Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, presented its 28 leaders with draft proposals at a long-delayed dinner.
France and Belgium had strongly resisted safeguards for countries that do not use the euro. In an apparent win for them, Juncker said the deal would give Britain no power of veto over the eurozone. Britain and other “euro-outs” will, however, be able to raise concerns about eurozone policies to the level of EU summits.
Meanwhile, Eastern European countries dug in their heels over benefit payments to EU migrants that they deemed discriminatory and violated the EU principle of freedom of movement.
Brussels offered an “emergency brake” that Britain could invoke for seven years if its welfare system is overwhelmed by the inflow of workers. During that period, it can limit the welfare benefits that individuals receive for up to four years.
With the EU negotiation out of the way, domestic politics are set to cause Cameron fresh headaches as key allies, including London Mayor Boris Johnson, make up their minds whether to back the prime minister or throw in their lot with the “no” camp.
One of his closest allies, Michael Gove, has already reportedly made up his mind to campaign for a Brexit.
On Monday, Cameron’s government is expected to submit measures in the Houses of Parliament to set the date of the vote.
This will be Britain’s second referendum on European membership in just over 30 years. In June 1975, voters backed membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC) by just over 67 percent.
However, that failed to prevent years of quarreling about Britain’s role in the bloc and its wider place in the world.
It was this, fueled by a surge in support for the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, which first prompted him in 2013 to promise a referendum.