British finance executives urged the UK to stay inside the EU for the good of its economy after Prime Minister David Cameron paved the way for a referendum on continued membership.

As the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting got under way in Davos, Switzerland, executives from Standard Chartered to Prudential said that remaining in the 27-nation bloc was in the UK’s economic interest. That message was dove-tailed with an acknowledgement that the crisis-stung euro zone’s own governance rethink justified British demands for a review of relations.

“The UK needs to remain very much part of the EU, but I can completely understand why the prime minister thought it necessary to offer the people a referendum,” Standard Chartered chief executive Peter Sands said in Davos yesterday.

With about half of British exports heading to EU neighbours and London serving as the region’s financial hub, companies have an interest in the UK sustaining these ties.

Cameron will have a chance to outline his strategy to the world’s financial elite when he speaks in Davos today.

Describing British backing for the status quo as “wafer thin”, Cameron said yesterday that voters would have their say by the end of 2017, if he was re-elected in two years. He wanted the UK to stay in the region.

“For the business sector, the long-term interest of Britain is in the EU,” Prudential chief executive Tidjane Thiam said. “The EU needs to be reformed, there’s a lot of frustration around, that debate needs to happen and long term it’s good for Britain to be in the EU.”

The economic case for membership was made in a report last week from economists at Citigroup. They estimated 50 percent of the UK’s goods shipments and 38 percent of services exports went to the EU in the first three quarters of last year. – Bloomberg