Stay or go? Millions in Britain decide on EU

2016-06-23 19:42
A polling station sign is pictured on a fence enclosing a 2S3 M-1973 Akatsiya 152-mm self-propelled howitzer in London. (Daniel Sorabje, AFP)

A polling station sign is pictured on a fence enclosing a 2S3 M-1973 Akatsiya 152-mm self-propelled howitzer in London. (Daniel Sorabje, AFP)

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London - Millions of Britons were voting on Thursday on whether to stay in the EU in a momentous referendum that has polarised the country and could change the face of Europe.

Latest opinion polls put the "Remain" camp narrowly ahead after a close-fought and often vitriolic campaign focused on immigration, the economy and Britain's very identity.

A record 46.5 million people registered to cast their ballot in the one-in-a-generation referendum being nervously watched across Europe and the world.

European leaders fear a so-called Brexit would trigger the biggest crisis in the 60-year history of a union born out of a determination to forge lasting peace after two world wars.

Financial markets appeared to be banking on "Remain" win. Stocks surged in London and the pound rose to its highest level against the dollar this year, reaching a peak of $1.4947.

An Ipsos MORI opinion poll for the London Evening Standard newspaper put "Remain" on 52% and "Leave" on 48%.

Other late opinion polls have suggested a narrow lead for "Leave", but these have been well within the margin of error.

Experts predict a high turnout across the kingdom, where polling stations have been set up at locations including churches, schools and even a launderette and a windmill.

In London and southeast England, many voters braved torrential rains and thunderstorms to have their say, but several polling stations had to be relocated due to flooding.

Constitutional crisis?

The referendum asks: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"

Commentators suggest Brexit could trigger a constitutional crisis in Britain, prompting another Scottish independence referendum and raising tensions in Northern Ireland, where the prospect of a hard border with the Irish Republic has been mooted.

There are also fears it could prompt other EU countries, disillusioned with how Brussels has handed the eurozone and migrant crises, to try to break away.

Polls close at 21:00 GMT and, while early indications of results could come from around 02:00 GMT on Friday, the final declaration is not likely until around 08:00 GMT.

The hashtag "iVoted" was trending on Twitter

On the streets of 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 in the capital, expressed frustration with how the campaign had been run.

"It's a media circus on both sides," he said. "I'll be glad tomorrow when it's over - well, provided it goes the way I want it to."

Thousands of people also queued to vote in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, which borders Spain.

Gibraltar's mayor Adolfo Canepa told reporters he was worried about the future if Britain left the EU.

"I know what it was like to live for all those years when the frontier was closed and I wouldn't like to put my children and grandchildren through that again."

'Day of reckoning'

The often acrimonious campaign has exposed a wide gulf between Britons on the country's often troubled 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 The Sun, while its pro-Remain stable mate The Times front page called it a "Day of Reckoning".

Prime Minister David Cameron, who faces calls to resign in the event of a "Leave" victory, voted early without making any comment.

At his final rally on Wednesday, the Conservative leader implored people to stay in the bloc, invoking Britain's cigar-chomping wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.

"Churchill didn't give up on European democracy... and we shouldn't walk away," he said.

Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, said as he voted that "Leave" had "a really good, strong chance".

"It's all about turnout, it's all about passion, it's all about who cares enough to go out and vote."

'Out is out'

EU leaders have warned Britain - the world's fifth largest economy - that there would be no turning back from a vote to quit.

"Out is out," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said on Wednesday, dismissing any talk of a post-vote renegotiation of Britain's membership terms.

A British withdrawal would trigger a lengthy exit negotiation, leading to the loss of unfettered access to its partners in the EU single market and forcing the country to strike its own trade accords across the world.

In many European countries, newspapers pleaded "Please don't go" while several monuments were lit up with the British flag.

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.

Thomas Mair, 52, has been charged with Cox's murder and had his trial set for November at a court hearing on Thursday.

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.

Read more on:    eu  |  uk  |  brexit

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