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Cameron aims to offer Britons in-out vote on EU this summer

David Cameron
Peter Macdiarmid, WPA Pool | Getty Images
David Cameron

David Cameron is confident he can reach a deal on the UK's terms of membership in the EU next month, paving the way for a vote this summer on whether Britain will sever its four-decade relationship with the bloc.

The prime minister said that there was a "massive prize for Britain" if it could renegotiate membership, adding that he felt the "best answer" was for the UK to remain part of a reformed EU.

His comments came as a survey revealed that the majority of leaders at Britain's biggest companies thought that leaving Europe would not damage their prospects, suggesting that the impact of a Brexit could be less negative for business than In campaigners had suggested.

While most of the British business leaders interviewed in annual research by Ipsos Mori in conjunction with the FT said that walking away from the bloc would be negative for the UK economy as a whole, 61 per cent were confident that their individual operations would not suffer.

Many of the chairmen, chief executives and other senior managers from more than 100 big British companies also said that they wanted to unravel the close political ties between the UK and Europe and return to membership of a pure trading bloc.

Although more than half of the leaders said that the greatest attraction of EU membership was recruiting staff from Europe without requiring visas, three-quarters said that Brexit would not affect their company's ability to attract overseas talent.

Asked by the BBC whether he could conclude a deal at the European Council meeting in Brussels next month, opening up the possibility of a summer vote, Mr Cameron said: "I would like to see a deal in February and a referendum that will follow."

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Public opinion polls still suggest that British voters will opt to remain in the EU, with the average of the six latest polls revealing that 55 per cent would vote to stay in the bloc, according to the poll of polls on the What UK Thinks website.

The biggest stumbling blocks for Mr Cameron over renegotiating the terms of Britain's EU membership are social security benefits and freedom of movement.

In his letter last year to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, Mr Cameron said that he wanted EU migrants to become eligible for certain in-work benefits only after they had worked in the UK for four years. Some member states have suggested that this would be illegal and discriminatory.

The prime minister said on Sunday that his proposal remained "on the table until I see something that is equally powerful and meaningful".

Mr Cameron, who has said he will not serve a third term as prime minister, insisted on Sunday that he would stay in place for the remainder of parliament if the UK voted to leave.

He recently said that Eurosceptic ministers could campaign for the UK to leave the EU, in response to rising pressure from cabinet rightwingers. Ministers would be able to take "a different personal position" to the official government line during the Brexit referendum campaign "while remaining part of the government", he said.

On Sunday, the prime minister said that the government was "not going to be neutral" on whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU. After the renegotiation concluded, the cabinet would decide upon a formal position and reach a "clear recommendation", Mr Cameron said. However, Eurosceptics would be able to campaign against that position.