Donald Tusk: Concrete proposal for EU reform to be tabled within weeks
A "concrete proposal" for European Union reform will be tabled within weeks, Donald Tusk said in an apparent boost to David Cameron's hopes of securing a quick renegotiation deal.
The European Council president said it was "not easy but possible" that agreement could be reached between the other 27 member states at a summit next month.
That could open the door to the in/out referendum on Britain's continued membership of the bloc being held as early as June.
"I will table concrete proposal on #UKinEU in run-up to February #EUCO. I will work hard for deal in February, not easy but possible," Mr Tusk wrote on Twitter.
It came as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond indicated they were looking at alternatives to a proposed benefits ban to stem the flow of EU migrant workers to Britain - the principal stumbling block to a deal.
The Prime Minister has made measures to cut migration one of the key demands in his renegotiation of Britain's relationship with Brussels, proposing a ban on migrants claiming in-work benefits until they have been in the UK for four years.
Mr Hammond told The Guardian that Britain was prepared to look at alternatives that would meet the aim of cutting migration and called the four-year proposal a "second-order approach".
Number 10 said Mr Cameron wanted a solution that would make a "concrete difference" to the numbers coming to the UK and had always been clear there were " a range of options on the table".
Cabinet minister David Mundell said there was a "strong argument" for holding the vote in June despite concerns about its close proximity to the Scottish Parliament elections in May.
The PM's spokeswoman refused to be drawn on whether June was Mr Cameron's preferred date but said: "We are going to be driven by substance not schedule. Then he will set out the timings for the referendum.
"But a deal in February would pave the way for getting on with this."
Delaying the referendum until after the autumn could lead to the vote being held after another summer dominated by the migrant crisis - something those in favour of remaining in the EU believe could deter voters from backing continued membership.
Mr Tusk warned that the result of the referendum "is more unpredictable than ever before" and that "time is of the essence" in securing a sufficiently strong reform package to persuade British voters to reject "Brexit".
Reporting to the European Parliament about the last summit in December, he insisted there could be "no compromise on fundamental values like non-discrimination and free movement".
"At the same time, I will do everything in my power to find a satisfactory solution, also for the British side," he told MEPs.
"As of today, the result of the referendum is more unpredictable than ever before. Time is of essence here. And this is why I will work hard to strike a deal in February. It will not be easy but it is still possible."
He said "hard work" continued on all four of Mr Cameron's priority areas - an exemption from the commitment to "ever-closer union", restrictions on benefits for migrants, protection from eurozone integration and improvements in competitiveness.
"As we speak, my people are working with the Commission to bring us closer to the solution. In the run-up to the February European Council, I will table a concrete proposal for a deal with the UK to all EU leaders."
Mr Tusk said the EU was undergoing a "stress test" as it sought simultaneously to deal with the UK's demands, the refugee crisis and the reform of the troubled eurozone single-currency group.
In a stark assessment of efforts to curb the flow of migrants from Syria and elsewhere, he said: We have no more than two months to get things under control.
"The statistics over the Christmas period are not encouraging with over 2,000 arrivals to the EU per day, according to Frontex.
"The March European Council will be the last moment to see if our strategy works. If it doesn't we will face grave consequences such as the collapse of Schengen.
"For sure this kind of alternative to our strategy is not pleasant, and so I appeal that Member States implement our agreements in full."
There remained " a clear delivery deficit on many fronts, from hotspots and security screening in frontline countries to relocation and returns", he said, while a deal with Turkey " although promising, is still to bear fruit".
Eurosceptic Leader of the Commons Chris Grayling said there was no need for ministers to quit the Government if they want to campaign for Britain to leave the EU.
Mr Grayling last week sparked predictions that he may be one of the most prominent political supporters of the Leave campaign with a newspaper article in which he said it would be "disastrous" to stay in the EU under current conditions.
But speaking to reporters at a Westminster lunch, he declined to confirm his plans.
Speaking under the watchful eye of Downing Street media chief Craig Oliver, he stuck carefully to the terms of Mr Cameron's instruction that ministers should not campaign on either side until the renegotiation of the UK's membership is complete, when the rules of collective Cabinet responsibility will be suspended.
Mr Grayling said the PM's decision was "entirely fair and proper" and refused to estimate how many of his colleagues will back the Leave campaign once they are free to do so.
Mr Cameron's position was the "grown-up thing" to do, he said, questioning whether other party leaders would grant their MPs similar freedom.
He cautioned that the campaigns should be led by a team of people from inside and outside politics, rather than being built around an individual leader.
The Epsom and Ewell MP repeated his conviction that Mr Cameron should stay as PM even if he lost the referendum, arguing that he has a "mandate for five years" from the electorate.
"I think David Cameron remains Prime Minister whatever the result," he said. "He has a mandate for five years from the people of this country.
"I think if we were to vote to leave, there is then a big challenge around negotiating the terms on which we leave. The idea we would destabilise our Government at that moment in time by trying to get through a leadership contest would not be welcome."
Mr Grayling declined to say whether he thought Britain should undertake the process of withdrawal in the case of a Leave vote by activating the EU's Article 50, which sets out a two-year procedure to negotiate an exit.
But he appeared to suggest that this might not be the only route to Brexit, saying: "There are different options that would be available to us as a sovereign nation."
Mr Grayling dismissed suggestions that a Leave vote could prompt a second referendum on Scottish independence as "utterly financially unrealistic", due to the collapse in oil prices.
While the Scottish National Party was "making a noise" about the consequences of Brexit, "I don't think they are actually really intending to try for a second referendum", he said.
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign group, said: "It would be more apt to describe the renegotiation as being made of sand rather than concrete, given anything built on it will not stand the test of time.
"The whole renegotiation process will deliver only cosmetic changes that won't bring powers back from Brussels or return control back to the British public.
"Voting 'remain' on the basis of such a trivial deal would be a huge risk as it would be a vote to hand more money and power to the EU."