EU leaders hold make-or-break 'Brexit' summit
EU leaders go into a make-or-break summit facing difficult compromises to keep Britain in the bloc and wrangling with Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.
Prime Minister David Cameron's demand for key reforms in return for Britain's continued membership has exposed a rift over whether the EU's future is to move ever closer together or to ease ties, becoming a looser group of distinct sovereign nations.
Fail to get a deal and Cameron has said anything is possible, including Britain becoming the first country to leave the 28-nation bloc after an in-or-out referendum that could come as early as this summer.
Cameron has staked his political survival on securing the reform deal and winning the plebiscite in hopes of ending a political feud over Britain's place in the EU that has plagued his Conservative Party for a generation.
Leaders will also seek to get a new grip on the refugee crisis, which has seen over a million migrants flood into Europe.
Most of them are Syrians making their way from Turkey via Greece, which has been overwhelmed by the numbers.
Brussels has rounded on Athens, saying it is not doing enough, but a solution is elusive. Some member states are taking measures unilaterally, such as re-imposing border controls in the passport-free Schengen zone to halt an apparently unending tide of humanity.
A deadly bomb attack in Ankara on Wednesday forced the cancellation of a mini-summit, gathering 11 EU countries with Turkey, that was to explore ways of easing the migrant buildup.
To avoid a so-called "Brexit", Cameron has four key demands -- welfare restrictions to help curb immigration, safeguards for non-euro Britain, increasing EU competitiveness and an opt-out from closer EU integration.
The key sticking point is his demand that EU citizens working in Britain not have access to welfare benefits for four years.
Poland and other east European member states who have hundreds of thousands of citizens in Britain bitterly oppose such a change, saying it would discriminate against them and undercut the EU's core principle of freedom of movement.
Brussels has offered what is known as an "emergency brake," which Britain could invoke if its welfare system is overwhelmed by the inflow of workers, as it believes it has been.
To his call that non-euro Britain have safeguards against closer integration of the single currency area, France insists that London must "in no circumstances" get a veto over the eurozone.
An opt-out from the EU's mission of "ever closer union" is also proving controversial amid charges concessions to London will create a two-speed Europe of countries wanting to limit integration and those wanting to press ahead.
Against this backdrop, EU President Donald Tusk warned Thursday there was "no guarantee" of a deal at the two-day summit.
Cameron won crucial backing, however, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bloc's undoubted power-broker, suggesting that despite Tusk playing down expectations, progress was being made on an agreement.
"Like David Cameron, I believe that it is necessary for the EU to improve our competitiveness, transparency and (reduce) bureaucracy. Germany has shared these concerns for many years," she said.
Even the controversial proposal to curb benefits was "justified and understandable because the jurisdiction for each respective social system lies not in Brussels but in each individual member state," Merkel said.
Cameron has promised Britons an in-out EU membership referendum by 2017 but it is widely expected that if he can get a deal in Brussels, he will call the vote for June.
In London, a UK government official said the prime minister had taken "a very personal involvement" in the talks and now "this is crunch time".
"We think we have made a lot of progress and we will be going into this summit to nail down the rest of the details," said the official who asked not to be named.
The keys to Britain's EU membership - AFP
European Union leaders meet Thursday for what promises to be a tense two-day summit to discuss new terms for Britain's membership of the EU.
Here is a summary of what it means to be a member of the EU and how Britain stands apart.
The EU traces its origins to the 1950s, when half a dozen countries in continental Europe launched the first moves of economic integration after the devastation of World War II. The European Economic Community (EEC) emerged from this process in 1958, with Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands as the founder members.
Jealous of an economic boom enjoyed by France and Germany, Britain joined the bloc in 1973 after overcoming fierce objections in Paris.
In 1992, the Treaty of Maastricht expanded integration, creating the European Union and laying the foundations for the single currency, the euro -- the project that is proving to be one of the most contentious issues in Britain's continued membership.
After years of gradual expansion, membership exploded, with the addition of nearly a dozen ex-communist states in 2004 and 2007. Croatia was the latest to join in 2013, bringing the club to its current 28 members.
In the EU, not all members carry the same political weight nor obey the same rules. Whether concerning the euro, the EU budget or the free movement of people, the European project is riddled with exceptions.
The Schengen passport-free zone is one of its pillars, enshrining the fundamental right to free movement.
Britain is the only EU country to have opted out of both Schengen and the euro, choosing to control its own borders and currency. Denmark also is under no obligation to eventually join the euro.
All other EU members are expected to adopt the single EU currency, although several countries, including Sweden and Poland, are openly reluctant to do so after the turbulence of the eurozone debt crisis.
As for the EU budget, which Britain got cut back in 2014, member states contribute on the basis of their per-capita wealth and population size. The current 2014-20 budget is worth nearly a trillion euros ($1.11 trillion).
Germany, France and Britain are the biggest contributors with Poland, Hungary and Greece the biggest net recipients.
The budget comprises three main parts -- the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which covers farm aid and accounts for about a third of spending; Cohesion Funds which help poorer member states catch up with their peers; and programmes to boost innovation and jobs.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 famously secured a rebate on Britain's contribution on the argument that Britain, with a small farming sector, received much less CAP funding than its peers. The British rebate has since become an article of faith, with London hostile to any attempt to cut it.
The Treaty of Lisbon, agreed in 2009, introduced an EU exit clause allowing member states a legal path to leave the bloc voluntarily.
A country that wants out of the EU must notify the European Council, the paramount decision-making body which groups the governments of the 28 member states. Any withdrawal would then be negotiated in a process likely to take months.
Officials warn that an exit by Britain, a major economy that also hosts the City of London financial hub, would be tortuous.
The EU has put the brakes on new members, ruling out any additions until 2020 ever since the expansion to the east proved too much for the current institutions to handle.
Turkey, along with Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania, is among the current applicants. Britain notably supports Turkey's membership bid but many others are bitterly opposed.