David Cameron is to call a special meeting of the Cabinet on Saturday to approve a deal struck with fellow EU leaders in Brussels which will pave the way for an in/out referendum on British membership by the summer.
The historic poll is expected to be held on June 23 after the Prime Minister hailed an agreement which he said would provide “special status in the EU” and left no doubt that he will lead the campaign to keep Britain in the EU.
The development came late on the second day of gruelling talks in Brussels between leaders of the 28 member-states, which saw the Prime Minister face opposition to proposals to restrict migrant benefits and provide new protections for countries outside the single currency.
The new deal provides for a seven-year emergency brake on in-work benefits for EU migrant workers, as well as cuts in child benefit for their children living overseas – applicable immediately for new arrivals and from 2020 for the 34,000 existing claimants.
It also says that EU treaties will be amended to state explicitly that references to the requirement to seek ever-closer union “do not apply to the United Kingdom”.
A jubilant Mr Cameron tweeted from the room where round-table discussions took place: “I have negotiated a deal to give the UK special status in the EU. I will be recommending it to Cabinet tomorrow.”
The Cabinet meeting will be the first to be held on a Saturday since the Falklands War, and was demanded by Eurosceptic ministers who did not want the Prime Minister to have free rein to trumpet the merits of the deal all weekend while they remained gagged.
Mr Cameron has previously promised to suspend the principle of collective responsibility after the meeting, giving a green light to Eurosceptic ministers like Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling to go out and campaign for Britain to leave Europe without having to quit their jobs. Waverers like London mayor Boris Johnson and Cabinet minister Michael Gove will now face tremendous pressure to spell out where they stand.
Sources close to Mr Gove declined to comment on increasingly confident reports that the Justice Secretary is preparing to throw his weight behind Brexit.
Leaked copies of the deal indicated that a compromise deal will allow existing claimants to carry on receiving child benefit in full for offspring living overseas until 2020, but that all member states will then be able to pay them at the rate of their home country.
This rate - usually lower than that paid to British parents - will be applicable immediately to all new migrants with children living abroad after the deal comes into force.
The agreement falls well short of the outright ban on sending child benefit abroad initially demanded by Mr Cameron, and marks a compromise solution with eastern European states who had insisted that existing claimants should continue to receive the full payment until their sons and daughters reach adulthood - something rejected as “not acceptable” by the Prime Minister. A lengthy section making clear that the phrase “ever closer union” in EU treaties is not “in legal terms an equivalent to political integration” was struck out, in an apparent response to Belgian sensitivities. But the new text makes clear that EU treaties will be amended to state explicitly that references to ever closer union “do not apply to the United Kingdom”.
An “emergency brake” on in-work welfare payments for migrant workers will be made available for seven years - with no option for extensions - in cases where member states are facing excessive strain from new arrivals. The seven year period is shorter than the 13 years put forward by Mr Cameron in negotiations, but considerably longer than eastern European nations had argued for.
The deal came after behind-the-scenes talks which stretched through Thursday night and most of Friday, as Mr Cameron and European Council president Donald Tusk struggled to keep Britain’s renegotiation on track.
The 28 leaders had initially been due to gather early in the morning for an “English breakfast” meeting to approve a package of reforms to the UK’s membership, but breakfast became brunch, lunch, high tea and then dinner as opponents of the deal dug in their heels.
The delays forced Mr Cameron to scrap plans to summon ministers for a Cabinet meeting on Friday evening.
Mr Cameron had faced concerns from eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia over his call for an “emergency brake” on in-work benefits for migrant EU workers to extend for as long as 13 years.
And the same nations put up stiff resistance to the UK’s demand to impose cuts in child benefits for offspring living abroad on 34,000 existing claimants as well as future migrants.
Meanwhile, France and Austria voiced anxiety that the protections for non-euro states sought by Mr Cameron might effectively grant special status to the City of London and allow Britain to hobble future deepening of the eurozone.
The leaders tucked into decidedly un-English fare at the much-delayed English dinner.
On the menu was crown of artichoke with goat’s cheese and rocket, followed by fillet of veal with tarragon juice, wilted spinach and polenta, and a dessert of passion fruit bavarois.
And news of the deal was initially broken by Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, who sent a tweet to say: “Agreement #UKinEU done. Drama over.” And Danish PM Lars Lokke Rasmussen said: “David Cameron fought hard for Britain. Good deal for UK and for EU. Congrats!”
Minutes later, the breakthrough was officially confirmed by Mr Tusk, who said: “Deal. Unanimous support for new settlement for UK in EU.”