EXITING the European Union would be a “disaster” for British jobs and business, said Sir Richard Branson, who hopes people will see the sense of staying at the heart of the world's largest borderless single market.

Ahead of next week’s European Parliament elections, which is expected to show rising support for Nigel Farage’s anti-EU UKIP party, the Virgin tycoon showed himself to be a passionate Europhile.

Almost half of the region's export business is done with members of the EU, supporting an estimated 170,000 North-East jobs.

However, recent polls show UKIP has the support of almost a third of respondents, putting it six points ahead of Labour on 25 per cent.

The Prime Minister has pledged an "in-out" EU referendum, if he wins the next General Election.

“I am all for negotiating improvements in Europe but I am all for doing that within the EU, not outside of it,” Sir Richard said, during a visit this week to Virgin Money’s headquarters in Newcastle.

“I think it would be an absolute disaster if we pull out of the EU.

“The people of Ukraine waged a civil war to get into the EU and I think it would be a financial disaster for Britain to pull out.

“I very much hope that ultimately, British people see sense.

“I remember the days when I couldn’t go and live in Spain, Greece or Italy when I wanted to. If I exported goods to France or Holland it cost me 35 per cent tax. I couldn’t get a job in Germany, if I wanted to.

Having local decisions made within our own countries, but being this massive big trading bloc is certainly extremely important.”

He added: “We are so much stronger (as part of the EU).”

His comments echo the views of key North-East employers, including car maker Nissan and Hitachi Rail Europe, which have warned they could pull the plug on regional investment if an EU exit became likely.

The Government estimates that 3.5 million jobs in Britain are linked, directly or indirectly, to the UK's trade with other member states.

Eurosceptics, say that negative trade imbalances with Europe and a hefty net contribution to the budget show Britain has had a bad deal during its four decades of membership.