Brexit day: After bitter campaign, U.K. votes in historic EU referendum

Britain deeply divided on EU membership, with older voters favouring exit and younger voters wanting to stay

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‘Vote leave’ posters are seen in a window in London’s Chelsea district on June 23. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Britons are voting on whether to quit the European Union in a bitterly contested referendum that has polarized the nation and could change the face of Europe.

Financial markets, on edge for weeks over the uncertain outcome, rose on the strength of late polls that showed a swing toward staying in, but the bulk of recent polls have suggested the outcome was too close to call.

If Britain becomes the first state to exit the EU, the so-called Brexit would be the biggest blow to the 28-nation bloc since its foundation. The EU would be stripped of its second-biggest economy and one of its two main military powers and could face calls for similar votes by anti-EU politicians in other countries.

If it votes to stay, Britain has been promised a special status exempting it from further political integration. But European leaders will still have to address a sharp rise in Euro skepticism across the Continent.

A Brexit vote would also deal a potentially fatal blow to the career of Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the referendum and campaigned for the country to stay in, against a Leave camp led by rivals from within his own Conservative Party.

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British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha, arrive to cast their votes in the EU referendum. Cameron is the leading voice behind the Remain camp. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

After four months of campaigning, polling stations opened at 7 a.m. London time (2 a.m. ET) and will close at 10 p.m. (5 p.m. ET), with results expected to be announced by the 382 individual local counting areas between about 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. There will be no exit poll, as the margin of error for an event which has no precedent is too large.

Voters in the London area were battling heavy rain Thursday, leading to flooding and major rush-hour disruptions to the city’s rail network.

The weather prompted fears that the chaos could hit voter turnout. Five London polling stations opened late as staff struggled to get there and two closed briefly because of flooding but were quickly re-opened in back-up locations.

The Leave campaign says Britain would recover full sovereignty and the economy would benefit from a Brexit. It focused its campaign on warnings that Britain would be unable to control immigration levels as long as it was an EU member.

Remain says a Brexit would cause financial chaos, impoverish the nation and diminish its influence on world affairs, emphasizing the economic benefits of membership and the risks posed by leaving.

The campaign was suspended for three days after the killing of pro-EU MP Jo Cox a week ago, which prompted soul-searching about the vicious tone of the debate.

An Ipsos MORI poll for the Evening Standard newspaper found support for Remain at 52 per cent and Leave at 48 per cent. A Populus poll put Remain 10 points ahead, at 55 per cent. Both were conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Cameron’s fate

Cameron called the vote under pressure from the rebellious anti-EU wing of his Conservative Party and the surging U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), hoping to end decades of debate over Britain’s ties with Europe.

Unless Remain wins by a wide margin, Cameron could struggle to repair the rifts in his party and hold onto his job. He has said he would stay in office but in the event of a vote to leave, he is likely to face calls to resign.

His main rival, fellow Conservative and former London mayor Boris Johnson, is heading up the Leave camp. Johnson is the favourite with bookmakers to succeed Cameron.

If Britons choose to leave, Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has suggested Scotland, where sentiment toward the EU is much more positive, may hold another a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom. Scots voted against independence in a plebiscite in 2014.

Traders, investors and companies were braced for volatility on financial markets whatever the outcome of a vote that both reflected — and has fuelled — an anti-establishment mood also seen in the United States and elsewhere in Europe.

If Britain votes to leave, finance leaders from the G7 will issue a statement stressing their readiness to take all necessary steps to calm markets, government officials with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Britain’s AAA credit rating could swiftly be downgraded by Standard & Poor’s if the Brexit camp prevails, S&P chief sovereign ratings officer Moritz Kraemer told German daily newspaper Bild.

Foreign leaders weigh in

Britain is deeply divided on EU membership, with older voters favouring exit and younger voters wanting to stay. London and Scotland favour staying in, while much of middle England wants out.

The killing of Cox, a 41-year-old mother of two young children, stabbed and shot on a street in her electoral district, cast a pall over the final days of campaigning. When asked his name, the man charged with her murder told a London court: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” He is due to go on trial in November.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, the focus on immigration to Britain, which has increased dramatically in recent years, could worsen frictions in a country where the gap between rich and poor has also been widening.

The nation’s divisions were reflected in newspaper front pages. “Independence Day” was the front-page headline of the Sun tabloid, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, while the Daily Mirror warned “Don’t take a leap into the dark.”

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A man wears a Union Jack bow tie and a ribbon urging people to vote for the U.K. remaining in the European Union. Polls have suggested a close race in the four months of campaigning leading up to today’s vote. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Foreign leaders, from U.S. President Barack Obama to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, have called on Britain to remain in the EU, a message supported by global financial organizations, many company bosses and central bankers.

Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau also said he hopes Britain remains in the EU, noting that a strong United Kingdom and a strong European Union are best for Canada.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, meanwhile, has voiced support for a Brexit.

“I don’t think anybody should listen to me because I haven’t really focused on it very much, but my inclination would be to get out,” he told Fox Business on Wednesday. “You know, just go it alone. It’s a mess,” he said of the EU.

International banks have warned that the value of the pound could fall dramatically if Britain votes to leave and traders expect markets to be more volatile than at any time since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

The “Out” campaign says a fall in the value of the pound would boost exports and has found support among some financial specialists and small businesses. It has urged voters to ignore what it calls the “establishment,” saying it has the most to lose from Brexit.

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