Stay or go? Britain decides in EU vote90 views
London (AFP) – Millions of Britons voted Thursday in a bitterly-fought, knife-edge referendum that could pull the island nation out of the EU and spark the biggest crisis in the bloc’s 60-year history.
A record 46.5 million voters have registered to decide Britain’s future in the 28-nation European Union, which was born out of a determination to unite in lasting peace after the carnage of two world wars.
Across London and southeast England, many voters braved torrential rain to have their say in a battle fought on two main fronts: immigration and the economy.
After a deeply divisive campaign, experts predict a high turnout across the country, where polling stations have been set up at locations including churches, schools and even a laundrette and a windmill.
The once-in-a-generation referendum asks: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
In one of the last opinion polls, “Remain” took the lead with 48 percent against “Leave” on 42 percent. The remaining voters were undecided, according to the telephone survey by ComRes for the Daily Mail and ITV News.
Two other surveys published on the eve of the referendum — both conducted over the Internet — put the “Leave” camp ahead by one or two percentage points, well within the margin of error.
“Leave” advocates say a Britain cut loose from the EU will be able to rein in high levels of immigration and take back power from Brussels, while the “Remain” camp warns of a huge economic shock if Britain abandons the bloc.
– ‘Baffling’ debate –
World financial markets seemed to be banking on a “Remain” victory. In Tokyo, sterling briefly hit $1.4844 — its highest level so far this year — while stock markets in London, Paris and Frankfurt climbed in early trade.
Financial institutions are reinforcing their trading teams to cope with the prospect of frantic round the clock trading and the world’s leading central banks say they are ready to react to any eventuality.
With no exit polls, the result is unlikely to begin emerging before about 0300 GMT Friday.
Using the hashtag #ivoted, some people posted mobile phone images of their completed ballot papers on Twitter. Election authorities had asked voters to refrain from taking selfies.
“Our polling station had a queue of people waiting to get in at 7 am — first time anyone can remember that on polling day,” voter Nick Turner in northwestern Cumbria said on Twitter.
In London, 57-year-old estate manager John Thompson said he was hoping for a “Leave” victory.
“I value autonomy,” he told AFP. “It is just life, freedom and autonomy and I don’t think I am going to get that under Europe — not the kind I want.”
Ben Giddens, a 27-year-old who works as a drag queen, expressed frustration with how the campaign had been run.
“It’s a media circus on both sides,” he said. “It’s absolutely astonishingly baffling how bizarre our politics has gotten over this. I’ll be glad tomorrow when it’s over — well, provided it goes the way I want it to.”
– ‘Independence day’ –
The often acrimonious campaign has exposed a wide gulf between Britons on the country’s four-decade membership of the European club.
British newspapers captured the high stakes of voting day. “Independence day” was the headline of the pro-Brexit Sun, while The Times called it a “Day of reckoning”.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who faces calls to resign if there is a “Leave” victory, voted early without making any comments.
At his final rally on Wednesday, Cameron implored people to stay in the bloc, invoking Britain’s cigar-chomping wartime prime minister.
“Winston Churchill didn’t give up on European democracy… and we shouldn’t walk away,” he said.
Leading Brexit backer Boris Johnson, a former London mayor who is widely touted as a future prime minister, insisted the “Leave” campaign was on the brink of an “extraordinary” victory.
– ‘Out is out’ –
EU leaders have warned Britons that there would be no turning back from a vote to quit.
“Out is out,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday, dismissing any talk of a post-vote renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms.
A British withdrawal from the EU would trigger a lengthy exit negotiation, leading to the loss of unfettered access to its partners in the EU’s single market and forcing the country to strike its own trade accords across the world.
In Brussels, the referendum has raised concerns of a domino effect of exit votes that would imperil the integrity of the bloc, already buffeted by the eurozone and migration crises.
The referendum battle had paused for three days after the brutal murder of Jo Cox, a pro-“Remain” lawmaker and mother of two who was stabbed, shot and left bleeding to death on the pavement a week before the vote.
“Jo’s killing was political. It was an act of terror,” her husband Brendan Cox told around 5,000 people gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square on Wednesday.
Thomas Mair, 52, has been charged with Cox’s murder.
EU leaders open a two-day summit on Tuesday to deal with the outcome and decide how to cope with the risk of similar referendums on the continent.
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