By Kylie MacLellan and Paul Taylor
A European Union summit to negotiate new membership terms for Britain was forced into extra time on Friday as Prime Minister David Cameron struggled for a deal he could sell to sceptical British voters in a referendum.
After all-night negotiations followed by a day of private meetings to try to narrow remaining differences, a senior EU official said the talks had hit “critical” snags. A plenary session was postponed for several hours and the 28 leaders were asked to book hotel rooms for an extra night in Brussels.
“The situation is critical,” the official said. “The session scheduled for 4 pm (1500 GMT) has just been cancelled and the meeting of leaders has been postponed to dinner at the earliest, and they have been asked to book hotels for tomorrow.”
The extension appeared due to last-minute resistance by east European countries to Cameron’s efforts to slash child benefits for EU migrant workers whose children stay in their home country – a measure others such as Denmark are eager to to emulate.
As the hours ticked by, Greece also raised a potential last-minute hitch, saying it could block the entire deal unless it got its way on a dispute with Slovenia over border controls to curb the flow of migrants. But EU diplomats said the Greek gambit was not considered a serious show-stopper.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said European partners were ready to help Athens with migrants but warned: “It would be an error to use blackmail.”
Cameron had been hoping to fly home and chair a cabinet meeting on Friday to endorse what he calls a “new settlement” with the EU, setting in motion plans to call a referendum on Britain’s future in the Union, probably for June 23.
There was no immediate reaction from British officials to the postponement, which diplomats said could be a tactic to pressure weary leaders to clinch a deal.
The stakes are high for both Britain and the EU, with opinion polls showing voters almost evenly split.
The risks of Cameron’s strategy were highlighted on Friday when an opinion poll showed the campaign to leave the bloc had a two-percent lead with 36 percent support. The TNS poll showed 34 percent of British voters wanted to stay in the bloc, 7 percent would not vote and 23 percent were undecided.
All sides at the summit said the toughest issue remained Britain’s drive to restrict welfare benefits for migrant workers from other EU countries, with east European states fighting to preserve the rights of expatriates already working in the UK and elsewhere.
Summit chairman Donald Tusk, who had hoped to wrap up a deal at an “English breakfast” at 10 am (0900 GMT), pushed back the resumption of the group meeting first to lunchtime and then to dinner at an unspecified hour.
Tusk held a series of so-called “confessional” meetings with individual leaders to try to clear remaining obstacles.
Diplomats said differences with France over London’s demands for a mechanism to protect its financial centre from intrusive euro zone regulation had been narrowed down to just two words and would be fudged.
Cameron has promised Britons he will exclude new European immigrants from in-work benefits for four years and cut child benefit for workers whose families remain at home.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, representing that group, was battling to prevent the measures being applied to more than a million EU workers already in Britain and to avoid other countries piggy-backing on the child benefit cut.
Poland’s Europe minister, Konrad Szymanski, said progress had been made and the proposed mechanism would be limited to Britain and “proportionate and shaped in the right way”.
However, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said his country too was keen to apply a plan to index child benefit for EU workers whose children remain in their native country to their home country’s cost of living if Britain won.
Rasmussen claimed paternity of the idea, telling reporters: “It was a flower in my garden.”
Cameron was keen to show British voters he was fighting hard to secure a deal which he has called “the best of both worlds”.
“As I’ve said I’ll only do a deal if we get what Britain needs. So we are going to get back in there, and we are going to do some more work and I’ll do everything I can,” he told reporters on Friday morning after only a brief rest.
Britain is already the EU’s most semi-detached member, having opted out of joining the euro single currency, the Schengen zone of passport-free travel and many areas of police and judicial cooperation.
Many leaders said they felt they were at a historic turning point for European integration.
No country has ever voted to leave the Union. Britain is the EU’s second-largest economy and one of its two permanent members on the UN Security Council. Its exit would end the vision of the EU as the natural home for European democracies and reverse the continent’s post-World War Two march toward “ever closer union”.
Belgium, the most federalist of EU members, was pressing for a clause to ensure the deal with Britain would automatically cease to exist in case of a vote to leave – to make sure there was no possibility of a second renegotiation.
Diplomats said the idea was attractive to Cameron, who is seeking to convince Britons this is a last-chance vote, and might well be included in the final text.
The issue has divided Cameron’s Conservative Party for decades, crippling his 1990s predecessor John Major and bringing down his hero Margaret Thatcher.
Some Conservatives have criticised the reforms he is negotiating in Brussels as trivial, although most senior party figures are likely to join him in campaigning to stay in if he wins the concessions he is seeking.
Still, politicians present at the summit centre in Brussels predicted eventual agreement.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite played down the extended bilateral negotiations as necessary posturing to make a deal seem hard-fought.
“A deal is visible, a deal is possible but the timing will depend on how much drama some countries would like to see,” she told reporters.
“We would like to see Britain in Europe and we would like to help the British people to make a decision, but no matter what face-lifting or face-saving we perform here, it is only up to the British people to decide.”
Britain’s largely eurosceptic press depicted Cameron as begging or pleading, the Daily Mail describing him as ‘rattled’.
“Shambles as embattled PM’s deal is watered down,” a front-page headline read over a picture of an anxious-looking Cameron