David Cameron was fighting for his political future last night as European Union leaders met for a “make or break” summit on his reform demands.
The Prime Minister said he was “battling for Britain” with the aim of returning with a package he could put to both his party and the British people in a referendum.
Failure to strike a deal could force Mr Cameron to delay the much-publicised referendum in June.
Eurosceptic critics within his own party branded the process “a sham” while EU leaders such as French president François Hollande left no doubt there were limits to the compromises which would be accepted.
Mr Cameron said: “If we can get a good deal, I will take that deal but I will not take a deal that doesn’t meet what we need.”
It is understood he has ignored calls from eastern Europe leaders for child benefit cuts to be imposed only on new migrants with offspring living in their home country.
UK officials said child benefit was among a number of key issues, including protections for non-euro countries and a proposed emergency brake on migrant welfare, which remain to be settled at the summit.
Belgium – backed by France – has moved to pre-empt the possibility of a second UK referendum by proposing that summit conclusions should state that the deal will not be amended if Britain votes to leave the EU.
The move is meant to quash the idea, backed by some Eurosceptics and reportedly floated by London mayor Boris Johnson, that a Leave vote would give the UK leverage to extract more concessions from the EU before a second poll.
Mr Cameron is also seeking a “live and let live” settlement under which states wanting to integrate further will be free to do so, while the interests of the rest will be protected.
To this Mr Hollande said: “No country must have a right of veto, no country must exempt itself from the common rules or common authorities. It’s the European Union that’s at stake, not simply one country of the European Union.”
Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan dismissed the proposed deal and said: “I don’t know of any MEPs or Eurocrats in private who think that this is a fundamental change. All of the sound and fury, all of the negotiations, have come down to amending one directive – which we could have done at any time without needing any renegotiation.
“Privately, the Eurocrats were whooping and high-fiving and turning cartwheels because so little has been asked for.”
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said he expected a deal to be struck, as the other leaders would recognise how “embarrassing” it would be for Mr Cameron to return empty-handed.
Mr Farage added: “He hasn’t asked for us to get back supremacy for our parliament, he hasn’t asked for us to control our own borders, he hasn’t asked to reduce the vast daily fees we pay. I find the whole thing as a British person pretty shameful.”
However, German chancellor Angela Merkel said it was in Germany’s interest for Britain to remain in the EU: “We would like to do everything to create the conditions so that Great Britain can remain part of the European Union.”