British Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: REUTERS
British Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: REUTERS

LONDON — Top UK executives warned Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday that he could damage Britain’s economy by inadvertently taking the country out of the European Union (EU).

In a letter published in the Financial Times, Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, London Stock Exchange head Chris Gibson-Smith, WPP CE Martin Sorrell and seven other business leaders challenged Mr Cameron’s plan to renegotiate the UK’s membership terms of the 27-country EU and put the matter to a referendum.

The executives warn that such a plan could fail, pushing the UK out of the EU and hurting business.

EU membership offers access to the common European market, facilitating trade, and a role in negotiating the future of the continent’s financial policies. Britain has also benefited from EU funds to build infrastructure such as broadband networks.

Though the business leaders urged EU reform, they argued: "we must be very careful not to call for a wholesale renegotiation of our EU membership, which would almost certainly be rejected." "To call for such a move in these circumstances would be to put our membership of the EU at risk and create damaging uncertainty for British business, which are the last things the prime minister would want to do," they said.

Tough economic times are forcing the 17 EU countries that use the euro to move ever closer, creating a more powerful union that could leave non-euro members such as Britain with less negotiating power.

But while Mr Cameron wants Britain to retain influence in the EU, he is also resisting a push by many member states, such as France and Germany, to grant central authorities in Brussels greater powers over financial and legal affairs for the whole of the EU.

In the long run, many EU countries want to turn the bloc into a United States of Europe, an idea British politicians, particularly those among Mr Cameron’s Conservatives, abhor.

Mr Cameron is due to make a speech in mid-January to outline his position and the requests he will make. On Wednesday, he told lawmakers that Britain could get the changes it wanted.

"We’re active players in the European Union, but there are changes we would like in our relationship that would be good for Britain and good for Europe and I think because of the changes in the eurozone, which is driving a lot of change in the European Union, there’s every opportunity to achieve that settlement and seek consent for it," he said.

Popular distrust in Britain over the EU has grown in recent years as the bloc struggled to effectively combat a financial crisis affecting the region’s 17-member euro currency union.

That scepticism has been compounded by legal disputes — the European Court of Human Rights, for example, has been lambasted in Britain for ordering the government to give prisoners a vote in national elections.