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ANKARA (Reuters) - Britain is getting closer to a compromise with its European Union partners over curbing welfare payments to EU migrants, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Thursday.
Speaking during a visit to the Turkish capital Ankara, Hammond said if no deal with the EU could be reached at a European Council meeting in February he was hopeful it would happen at the next.
"We are getting closer but (we're) not there yet," Hammond said, adding that Britain's EU partners recognised that the issue was very important to the British people.
"Even as we speak we have civil servants working with (European) Council representatives trying to come up with a satisfactory proposal ... which can be circulated before the Council meeting in February," he said.
"If it doesn't happen in February we hope it will happen in the next Council."
Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to reform Britain's membership terms before it votes on whether to stay in the EU.
He faces an uphill battle securing a deal on curbing welfare to migrants, part of his effort to reduce immigration, as EU rules forbid discrimination on grounds of nationality among EU citizens.
Britain's request that the European Union focus on one feature of its welfare system has also raised eyebrows among some EU leaders as they try to reach a deal on handling hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
Britain's Europe Minister David Lidington said there had been progress on British demands, which also include greater competition in the EU, more sovereignty for Britain and safeguards for the City of London as a financial centre.
"I do think that there have been moves forward on all four of the issues, and I think we were encouraged by the fact that at the December European Council there was a declaration by all the heads there that they want to find a way forward," he told reporters during a visit to Lithuania.
Additional reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Andrew Roche