Reuters International

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

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By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Anxious European leaders issued a chorus of calls to Britons on Thursday to stay in the European Union rather than risk years of economic damage, but the prime minister whose country will chair the EU from July said it must prepare for a Brexit.

From German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to the heads of the EU institutions in Brussels and the man who forged the modern EU, Jacques Delors, they said remaining would be better for Britain and Europe - though aware that outside pressure may be counterproductive, all stressed it was for voters to decide.

Most European leaders have previously muted appeals to the British for fear of being counter-productive. But a swing towards Brexit in opinion polls a week before the June 23 referendum has sparked deep anxiety about the impact on the EU, prompting a greater readiness to warn Britons of harsh consequences.

Merkel, who did her best to help Prime Minister David Cameron negotiate a special status deal for Britain in February, said the UK could be shut out of the prized single market on which its large financial services sector is heavily reliant.

"If Britain votes to leave the EU, it will no longer be able to benefit from the advantages of the European common market," she said, adding that any negotiation of future terms of access would start with Britain being on the outside.

"I can't imagine that would be any kind of advantage," she added. "But the decision is ultimately up to the Britons."

Finance ministers from the 19 EU states using the euro currency met in Luxembourg on Thursday but their chairman, Dutch minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, said they would not discuss any contingency plans for Brexit. He acknowledged concern about the British vote but said there was no "Plan B" to deal with it, adding he was confident Britons would vote to remain.

That confidence is not widely shared in Brussels, especially in the past two weeks since polls have swung towards Brexit.

"We are approaching the point of no return. Brexit is now a visible scenario," one senior EU diplomat said. "We are talking, loudly but not in public. But there is nothing we can do."

BREAKING SILENCE

Breaking that taboo was Robert Fico, the outspoken prime minister of Slovakia, who met Merkel on Thursday. His country's six-month presidency of EU councils starting in July would give it some role in the start of negotiations with a Britain set on leaving the Union, and Fico said polls showed it was now time to be "realistic" about preparing for that eventuality.

"If you're watching football and your team is three behind in the 90th minute of the game, it's unlikely that there will be a turnaround and that suddenly you will win," he said.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the Union chief executive, told a questioner at an economic forum in Russia that Brexit would not put "the EU in danger of death" -- but he cautioned against a rise of euroscepticism across Europe.

And, like European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits, Juncker warned that a Leave vote would unleash "major uncertainty".

Juncker's distant predecessor from 1985-95, Jacques Delors, issued a statement to Reuters to dispel rumours he favoured a Brexit to let other states to integrate further.

"I consider the UK's participation in the European Union to be a positive element both for the British and for the Union," the architect of the euro single currency said.

Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, made one of his most impassioned calls yet for Britons to stay.

"Europe without the United Kingdom will be distinctly weaker. This is obvious. Equally obvious is that the UK outside the EU will be distinctly weaker, too," he said on a visit to Finland, warning that Brexit would bring "seven years of limbo and uncertainty in our relations".

"Many of the British ideas about the EU are gaining support all over Europe," he said. "Leaving now doesn't make any sense."

(Editing by Paul Taylor)

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