In or out? UK decides on EU membership
LONDON, United Kingdom (3rd UPDATE) – Millions of Britons voted Thursday, June 23, 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.
Financial markets appeared to be banking on a "Remain" win with stocks surging in London and the pound rising to its highest level against the dollar this year, reaching $1.4947 at around 1035 GMT.
The rise came after an Ipsos MORI opinion poll for the Evening Standard newspaper released Thursday put "Remain" on 52% and "Leave" on 48%.
Other opinion polls have suggested a narrow lead for "Remain," but well within the margin of error.
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 launderette and a windmill.
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.
The once-in-a-generation referendum asks: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"
"Leave" advocates say a Britain cut loose the EU will be able to rein in high levels of immigration and take back power from Brussels. The "Remain" camp warns of a huge economic shock if Britain abandons the bloc.
Independent commentators have also suggested Brexit could trigger a constitutional crisis.
In one scenario, the United Kingdom could shrivel to a rump state of England and Wales if a pro-EU Scotland holds another independence referendum and Northern Ireland, facing a "hard border" with the Irish Republic, decide to quit.
World financial markets appeared to be banking on a "Remain" victory.
The pound surged against the dollar before the start of voting and went higher still after the Ipsos MORI poll, reaching its highest levels this year.
Stock markets in London, Paris, and Frankfurt were also up.
Financial institutions are reinforcing their trading teams to cope with the prospect of frantic trading through the day and the world's leading central banks say they are ready to react to any eventuality.
With no exit polls taking place, 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.
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. "I'll be glad tomorrow when it's over – well, provided it goes the way I want it to."
'Day of reckoning'
The often acrimonious, deeply emotional campaign has exposed a gulf between Britons on the country's 4-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, June 22, he 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.
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 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 3 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. – Rappler.com