BERLIN (Reuters) - Alarmed by a surge of anti-EU populists, the chief executive of European aerospace firm Airbus Group has taken the unusual step of writing to the group's 144,000 employees to urge them to vote in this week's European Parliament elections.
"I didn't tell my colleagues what to vote, but I said 'Go and vote'," Tom Enders told Reuters in an interview, saying he hoped radical, anti-European parties would "get as few votes as possible".
"I wanted to make them (Airbus staff) reflect on the context between European integration and the success of our company."
The European aerospace and defence conglomerate, rival to the U.S.'s Boeing Co in the global aviation market, was founded in 2000 with the backing of the French and German governments, which hold minority stakes in it. It incorporates the Airbus planemaker brand set up in 1970.
Asked about the risk of voters turning their backs on the European Union amid widespread apathy, Enders said: "It is worrying for all of us in business, particularly those who are strongly present in Europe but also outside European markets."
Polling began on Thursday when Britain and the Netherlands voted, with right-wing, anti-EU parties expected to attract a surge of protest votes in many countries.
Britain's anti-EU UKIP party made strong gains in local elections, according to early results on Friday, while a Dutch exit poll for the European Parliament elections indicated that the anti-Islam, Eurosceptic Freedom Party had fallen well short of its goal of topping the poll.
Politicians, especially in France, often cite Airbus as a model of European integration and of the political will to create industrial champions.
Enders called for another burst of industrial and political leadership to overhaul another European industrial symbol, the Ariane space launcher, which like many industries is struggling against cheaper overseas competition.
The former German defence ministry planner overhauled Airbus' governance after failing to win German government backing for a proposed merger with Britain's BAE Systems last year that would have created a giant European defence equipment manufacturer.
Enders said he hoped a new European Parliament and executive European Commission would push forward reforms to make Europe's economic model more "viable and vibrant".
"You open the papers and see that even the few reforms there have been, like in the banking system, that seemingly have been agreed, are unravelling again because decision-makers think Europe is over the worst and can do without painful reforms," he said.
Airbus is headquartered in France and has its other main factories in German, Britain and Spain.
Enders also called for greater integration on foreign policy, defence and security, including arms export controls which are the centre of a new row between Airbus and the Berlin government that threatens jobs in Germany.
The EU has established efforts towards co-operating on foreign policy, defence and security and gets involved in peacekeeping and training. But analysts say Europe is a long way from having from a common identity in defence.
(Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Giles Elgood)