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EU thrashes out changes to 'Brexit' deal

[BRUSSELS] European negotiators held crunch talks Thursday to finalise a deal to keep Britain in the EU, ahead of a last-ditch effort by the bloc's president to convince other leaders before a summit next week.

Diplomats in Brussels were discussing changes to proposals that EU chief Donald Tusk laid out last week in a bid to answer British Prime Minister David Cameron's reform demands.

Cameron wants a deal at the February 18-19 summit before holding a referendum, probably in June.

The new draft text obtained by AFP shows some elements watered down to address the concerns of France and other eurozone countries about protections for states like Britain that do not use the single currency.

It also ties a four-year "brake" on welfare benefit payments for EU migrant workers more specifically to Britain, to make it harder for other countries to try to win a similar concession.

Some EU states like Germany or other richer northern European states could try to take similar benefit measures, which would likely see many veto the British deal, EU sources said.

A key question - how long Britain will be able to keep the brake system in operation - remains blank in the draft.

Several countries are also concerned about plans to change the EU's treaties to reflect the British demands, with some saying it should be enough that a summit agreement is made legally binding, the sources said.

The diplomats - so-called "sherpas" - from the 28 bloc's countries and the EU institutions hope to finalise the details before Tusk starts to meet EU leaders in coming days.

Former Polish premier Tusk said Tuesday that he still hoped for a deal next week but warned that the process was "very fragile", adding that he had cleared his diary until the summit to hold more talks.

He meets Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel in Brussels on Friday and will travel to Berlin and Paris for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande on Monday or Tuesday.

Tusk will also meet Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, as well as the President of Romania and the Czech Prime Minister, who currently heads the "Visegrad Group' of eastern European states, which oppose the migrant benefit changes.