British Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: REUTERS/DYLAN MARTINEZ
British Prime Minister David Cameron gestures as he addresses the media after a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, on Friday. Cameron said he would campaign with all his "heart and soul" for Britain to stay in the European Union after he won a deal in Brussels about the so-called Brexit, which offered his country "special status". Picture: REUTERS/DYLAN MARTINEZ

LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron will meet senior ministers on Saturday to endorse an EU deal he hopes will persuade voters to ratify Britain’s membership of the world’s largest trading bloc at a referendum likely to be held in June.

Mr Cameron hailed a deal clinched with other European Union leaders at a summit in Brussels as granting Britain special status, and said he would campaign hard to convince voters to stay in the bloc that Britain joined in 1973.

"I will be campaigning with all my heart and soul to persuade the British people to remain in the reformed European Union," the British leader said after securing the deal that was approved by all other 27 EU leaders.

"We are stronger, safer and better off inside this reformed European Union," Mr Cameron said. He will update senior ministers at a Cabinet meeting on Saturday and announce the referendum date soon afterwards.

The legally-binding agreement reached late on Friday granted Britain an explicit exemption from the founding goal of "ever closer union", offered concessions on the welfare rights of migrant workers and safeguards for the City of London.

A British exit from the EU would rock the Union — already shaken by differences over migration and the future of the eurozone — by ripping away its second-largest economy, one of its top two military powers and by far its richest financial centre.

Pro-Europeans warn an exit could also trigger the break-up of the United Kingdom by prompting another Scottish independence vote. The $2.9 trillion British economy would face years of uncertain negotiations over the terms of a divorce.

Opponents of EU membership — who will include one of Mr Cameron’s closest political allies, Justice Secretary Michael Gove — say Britain would prosper outside what they say is a doomed German-dominated bloc that punches way below its weight on the world stage.

In common with Mr Cameron’s Conservative Party, British voters are also split over membership, opinion polls show, with a significant number of people yet to make up their mind, though perceptions that the EU has failed to deal with the migrant crisis may be turning some towards a ‘Brexit’.

Conservatives divided

Mr Cameron is due to make a statement to parliament on Monday, triggering the start of the campaign for the referendum.

The cabinet meeting will formalise the government’s support for staying in the EU and Mr Cameron has said that ministers will then be free to campaign on whichever side they want.

Europe has divided the Conservatives for three decades and played a major part in the downfall of two of Mr Cameron’s two Conservative predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Finance minister George Osborne backed Cameron and other senior members of his cabinet — such as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond — are expected to follow suit.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has yet to make his position clear and Mr Cameron acknowledged that Mr Gove would campaign to leave, saying he was disappointed but not surprised. He suggested other Conservatives may also join the "out" camp.

Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who is influential in Britain through ownership of a clutch of British newspapers, congratulated Mr Gove.

"Congratulations Michael Gove," Murdoch said on Twitter. "Friends always knew his principles would overcome his personal friendships."

Reuters