LONDON (Reuters) - Groups campaigning to take Britain out of the European Union have stolen a march on their rivals in the race to raise cash, securing 8.2 million pounds in recent weeks from leading businessmen in the financial services industries.
Campaigns from both sides of the debate have appealed to big business to help them fight a referendum on June 23, a decision that will not only determine Britain's future in trade and world affairs but also shape the 28-member bloc.
According to the Electoral Commission, the groups campaigning for a British exit, or Brexit, raised 8.2 million pounds in the 12 weeks from Feb. 1, helped by large donations from Peter Hargreaves, a founder of investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown, and millionaire insurance tycoon Arron Banks.
Leave.EU, which is not the official group leading the Leave campaign, also received a 6 million pound loan from Banks.
The groups campaigning to keep Britain in the EU raised 7.5 million pounds, boosted by donations from David Sainsbury, the former chairman of the supermarket Sainsbury's who has given money to the main opposition Labour Party.
"Today it's clear the Leave campaigns have deep pockets," Will Straw, executive director of Britain Stronger In Europe, said in a statement.
The Remain campaign has also received donations from banks including Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan to help them spend on such items as billboard posters and leaflets.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who is campaigning for Britain to stay in the bloc, has called on the country's biggest firms to back his argument that a vote to leave could strain links with Britain's biggest trading partner and damage the economy.
However any British firms making a donation to a political organization must have shareholder approval, an exercise that can deter companies as it requires forward planning.
British firms also tend to steer clear of commenting on politics. A letter published earlier this year from the bosses of more than a third of the country's biggest firms backing EU membership was as notable for those firms that did not sign up as those that did.
"There are a lot of wealthy individuals who back Brexit," said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank.
"On the Remain side there are a few, but it tends to be big companies who back remaining in the EU, and big companies find it difficult to donate to political campaigns."
Hargreaves, a billionaire entrepreneur who sent a letter to around 15 million homes earlier this year to urge people to leave a "wasteful" EU, and Banks were the biggest donors to the Leave campaigns during the Feb. 1 to April 21 period.
Hargreaves donated 3.2 million pounds to Leave.EU while Banks donated to Grassroots Out, another campaigning organization. The official group leading the Leave campaign, called Vote Leave, raised 2.8 million pounds.
Those in the official "In" campaign - Britain Stronger in Europe - were boosted by two donations worth more than 2 million pounds by its leading contributor Sainsbury.
Sainsbury also gave further funds to smaller groups such as Scientists for EU and to the European Movement of the UK.
Much of big business has said it supports staying in the EU, concerned that Brexit could break supply contracts, harm the employment of workers from overseas and see costs rise.
But several leaders in financial services and some smaller businesses have come out strongly in favor of leaving, complaining that EU regulations stifle growth.
Wednesday's figures suggest the financing is more balanced that it was when Britain last held a referendum on its EU membership in 1975, when businesses joined forces to lead the campaign to keep Britain in and outspent the rival out campaign.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, editing by Stephen Addison and Dominic Evans