Britain's anti-EU party courts UK financiers ahead of elections

LONDON Mon Jan 20, 2014 8:25am EST

LONDON Jan 20 (Reuters) - The leader of Britain's anti-EU party appealed to the financial services industry on Monday to back his campaign for a European Union exit, saying European politicians "loathed and despised" London's dominance in the sector.

Seeking to boost support for his party ahead of elections to the European Parliament in May, Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), said Euro MPs were so hostile to the British finance industry that the country would be better off leaving the 28-nation bloc.

Within the European Parliament, "you'll find a solid wall of hatred against everything the City of London stands for from virtually everybody," Farage said during a panel debate.

"We are loathed and despised when it comes to financial services."

Britain is taking legal action against EU institutions over what it sees as potentially damaging regulation of the City of London, but EU officials say their sole intention is to better regulate financial activity and curb bankers' excesses.

UKIP holds no seats in the British parliament but its anti-EU, anti-immigration stance has found popular support. It has 13 seats in the European parliament and took a quarter of the votes cast in local elections in May.

The party's rise has created a problem for Prime Minister David Cameron, as it threatens to split his Conservative party's vote at next year's national election, potentially depriving him of outright victory. Pressure from eurosceptic Conservatives for Cameron to adopt a tougher anti-EU stance also risks reopening the internal rifts that contributed to the downfall of the party's last two prime ministers.

Farage is keen to win over a banking sector which is sceptical of the benefits of full EU withdrawal but in favour of clawing back some regulatory control - a position similar to Cameron's.

Farage, a flamboyant former metals trader, also told the audience of bankers he believed sexism in the City was dead but that female workers could be worth less to employers if they chose to take time off to have babies.

UKIP was named as Britons' favourite political party in one poll on Sunday, while a separate survey showed it is expected to beat Cameron's Conservatives and push them into third place at May's European elections.

Cameron has promised to try to renegotiate Britain's EU ties and hold a referendum on EU membership if his party wins the next election in 2015, and has said he would prefer his country to remain inside a reformed EU.

The opposition Labour party, which polls show remains a narrow favourite to win in 2015, does not favour a referendum.

Senior banking executives appear to overwhelmingly favour renegotiation rather than EU withdrawal. A survey in October by industry lobby group TheCityUK showed 84 percent of them wanted Britain to remain part of the EU.

"I think care needs to be taken before giving up a competitive advantage in search of something better," Chris Cummings, TheCityUK's chief executive, said during Monday's debate. "In brief, show me how I will be better placed to do business, then we can talk." (Editing by Andrew Osborn and Catherine Evans)

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