U.K. Executives Urge Britons to Back Cameron on Staying in EU

The One Question Brits Are Asking: In or Out?
  • WPP, Shell CEOs among those on letter to be released this week
  • Britain to be stronger, safer by remaining in EU, letter says

Top executives at dozens of the biggest U.K. companies are urging British voters to keep their country in the European Union, giving Prime Minister David Cameron important support as he launches the four-month “stay” campaign in the face of opposition from a third of the British public.

Leaders from WPP Plc, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, GlaxoSmithKline Plc and BT Group Plc, among others, signed a letter arguing that the nation is “stronger, safer and better off” as part of the 28-country bloc, according to people familiar with the matter. The letter, said to be signed by executives from about half of the companies in the FTSE-100 Index, will be released this week, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the document isn’t public yet.

“Businesses like ours need unrestricted access to the European market of 500 million people in order to continue to grow, invest and create jobs,” a draft of the letter said. “We believe that leaving the EU would deter investment and threaten jobs. It would put the economy at risk.”

The referendum campaign will pit economic arguments from much of corporate Britain against public anxiety over immigration and divisions within Cameron’s Conservative Party. London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative and one of the country’s most popular politicians, said Sunday he will campaign for a so-called Brexit on the grounds that leaving the EU would save money and give the country renewed control over its own affairs.

Following through on a promise made in 2013, the prime minister Friday struck a deal with fellow EU leaders that he said gives the U.K. special status within the bloc and is sufficient for him to lobby in favor of the country staying in the union. 

The U.K. won a seven-year “emergency-brake” period in which it can impose welfare curbs on other EU citizens arriving to work in Britain, and the deal also includes provisions for its financial industry to more easily block unwanted EU regulations. The next day Cameron called a referendum on the U.K.’s membership for June 23.

A telephone poll carried out by Survation on Saturday showed 48 percent of respondents want the U.K. to stay in the EU, compared with 33 percent who would vote to leave and 19 percent who are undecided. In recent months, most phone surveys have shown double-digit leads for remaining in the EU. Online polls have had the race much closer, some suggesting the “Leave” camp is ahead.

The Institute of Directors, a lobbying group for business, said the deal is sufficient for 60 percent of 672 members surveyed to vote to stay in the bloc. Manufacturing group EEF said that, similarly, six in 10 of its members want to remain, based on a poll before the negotiations in Brussels were concluded. The contents of the agreement would do little or have no bearing in changing that view, the EEF said.

Change Agent

“The business argument is that we sit next to our largest market, it is important we remain very engaged, we are potentially an agent of change by staying in Europe and we can make Europe more competitive, which is critical for business,” Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems Plc, Europe’s biggest defense company, said in a Bloomberg Television interview on Friday.

Businesses outside of the U.K. also are lining up in favor of the country remaining in the EU.

TUI AG, Europe’s largest tour operator, is in favor of continued membership because both consumers and the company benefit from it, Chief Executive Officer Fritz Joussen said this month. The company, which is based in Hanover, Germany, and listed on the London Stock Exchange, has a “strong foothold” in the U.K. and more than five million vacationers per year from the country, Joussen said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields told Bloomberg Television on Monday that the American carmaker believes “it’s really important for the U.K. to be part of a single market” and that “having the U.K. as part of a reformed EU is in the best interest of the U.K.”

Paul Kahn, the head of Airbus Group SE’s U.K. business, also signed the executives’ letter. The aircraft manufacturer, which is based in Blagnac, France, employs about 4,000 people in Filton, England. Most of the wings for the company’s planes are designed and built in the U.K., generating about 100,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to Airbus.

Among companies that didn’t sign are several that deal primarily with U.K. consumers: pay-television provider Sky Plc and grocery chains J. Sainsbury Plc and Tesco Plc, according to the people. The referendum is “a matter for the British people,” Sainsbury said in an e-mailed statement.

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