LONDON • The bosses of more than a third of Britain's top companies have urged voters to keep the country in the European Union, warning that a "Brexit" would threaten jobs.
Some 198 business leaders - including BAE Systems chairman Roger Carr, BP chief executive Bob Dudley and McLaren F1 team chief Ron Dennis - wrote a joint letter published in The Times, backing Prime Minister David Cameron's deal to reform the EU.
"Following the Prime Minister's renegotiation, we believe that Britain is better off staying in a reformed European Union," they wrote, adding that Mr Cameron had secured important commitments to improve competitiveness within the bloc.
"Business needs unrestricted access to the European market of 500 million people in order to continue to grow, invest and create jobs," wrote the business chiefs, who between them employ around 1.2 million people.
"We believe that leaving the EU would deter investment, threaten jobs and put the economy at risk.
"Britain will be stronger, safer and better off remaining a member of the EU."
Organised by the "Britain Stronger in Europe" campaign with the support of Mr Cameron's Downing Street office, the letter was signed by the bosses of nearly 200 companies. Among them were 36 FTSE 100 firms, including telecoms groups BT and Vodafone, retailers Marks & Spencer and Asda.
It echoed a similar move by big business in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Some executives signed the letter in a personal capacity, making clear that their companies remained neutral.
However, critics pointed out that many large employers such as Tesco, RBS, Barclays and Sainsbury's had not signed the letter and accused Mr Cameron of "bullying" businesses into supporting him.
"The truth is that despite the bullying of a prime minister who has no real business experience, it is other normal commercial factors which will determine the continued success of British businesses to invest and grow," said Mr Richard Tice, co-founder of pro-Brexit group Leave.EU.
"Brexit will reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens and cost on business, which can be used to invest in more jobs, not less."
Tesco, Britain's biggest private employer with 310,000 staff, said the June 23 referendum was a decision for the people of Britain and that its focus remained on serving its customers. Sainsbury's, the country's second-biggest supermarket, said it was an apolitical organisation that would leave the British people to decide.
The letter comes as a timely boost for Mr Cameron, who has endured a tough few days since he agreed to new British terms with EU leaders at a summit in Brussels last week. He was rocked on Sunday by the decision of London Mayor Boris Johnson to back a "Brexit", and on Monday he was forced to mount a defence of his deal in Parliament, where most of the criticism came from his own party.
Despite Mr Cameron's deal, bookmakers have slightly reduced the odds on Britain voting to leave while sterling sank to its lowest value against the dollar since 2009.
Rating agency Moody's threatened to downgrade Britain's AA1 rating to "negative outlook" if it voted to leave the EU.
The pound posted its biggest one-day loss in almost six years on Monday on concerns Britain could vote to leave the 28-member bloc.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS