Millions of Britons head to polls in historic EU referendum
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'Independence day' reads the headline of the pro-Brexit Sun, while the Times calls it a 'Day of reckoning'

Millions of Britons head to polls in historic EU referendum

After acrimonious campaign, neck-and-neck vote on whether to retain membership in 28-nation bloc set to begin

Pro-EU supporters hold placards and banners during a 'Yes to Europe' rally in London's Trafalgar square, ahead of Thursday's EU referendum, in central London on June 21, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / Niklas HALLE'N)
Pro-EU supporters hold placards and banners during a 'Yes to Europe' rally in London's Trafalgar square, ahead of Thursday's EU referendum, in central London on June 21, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / Niklas HALLE'N)

LONDON (AFP) — Millions of people across Britain vote Thursday in a bitterly fought, knife-edge referendum that could tear up the island nation’s EU membership and spark the greatest emergency of the bloc’s 60-year history.

A record 46.5 million voters are signed up to take an irreversible decision on Britain’s future in the 28-nation European Union, which was born out of a determination to forge lasting peace in the continent after the carnage of two world wars.

The once-in-a-generation referendum asks: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

Each voter must write a cross by one of two options:

• “Remain a member of the European Union”

• “Leave the European Union”

World financial markets, like voters, are in suspense over the result.

On the eve of the historic referendum, two polls — both conducted over the Internet — put the “Leave” camp ahead by one or two percentage points, well within the margin of error.

Leave supporters holds placards as they sit in Clacton-on-Sea as UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage visits on June 21, 2016.(AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)
Leave supporters holds placards as they sit in Clacton-on-Sea as UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage visits on June 21, 2016.(AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)

But a telephone poll gave “Remain” a notable lead of 48 percent, ahead of “Leave” on 42 percent.

Financial institutions are reinforcing 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 in any eventuality.

‘Independence Day’

The often acrimonious, deeply emotional campaign has exposed a gulf among Britons on membership of Europe.

The Thursday editions of British newspapers captured the drama of voting day. “Independence day” was the headline of the pro-Brexit Sun, while the Times called it a “Day of reckoning.”

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 victory.

A European, right, and Union flags are displayed outside Europe House, the European Parliament's British offices, in London, Wednesday, June 22, 2016. Britain votes whether to stay in the European Union in a referendum on Thursday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
A European, right, and Union flags are displayed outside Europe House, the European Parliament’s British offices, in London, Wednesday, June 22, 2016. Britain votes whether to stay in the European Union in a referendum on Thursday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

“I do think that we are on the verge, possibly, of an extraordinary event in the history of our country and indeed in the whole of Europe,” Johnson said in eastern England in a final scramble for support on Wednesday.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who has staked his political legacy on the referendum, implored people to vote to stay in the bloc at a final rally in Birmingham on the eve of voting.

“Winston Churchill didn’t give up on European democracy… and we shouldn’t walk away,” he said.

“Our economy will suffer if we leave,” he warned.

“If you jump out of the airplane you cannot clamber back through the cockpit hatch. That is why anyone in any doubt should vote remain tomorrow.”

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron sips from an "I'm In" mug as he meets television presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May during a visit to W Chump & Sons Ltd TV studio in west London on June 16, 2016 ahead of the EU referendum as the prime minister campaigns to avoid a Brexit. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Gareth Fuller)
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron sips from an “I’m In” mug as he meets television presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May during a visit to W Chump & Sons Ltd TV studio in west London on June 16, 2016 ahead of the EU referendum as the prime minister campaigns to avoid a Brexit.
(AFP PHOTO / POOL / Gareth Fuller)

EU leaders warned Britons that there would be no turning back from a vote to quit.

“Out is out,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said in Brussels, dismissing any talk of a post-vote renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms.

French President Francois Hollande warned an exit would be “irreversible.”

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 Europe, 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.

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally in favor of remaining in the EU in central london on June 22, 2016.(AFP PHOTO / NIKLAS HALLE'N)
Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally in favor of remaining in the EU in central london on June 22, 2016.(AFP PHOTO / NIKLAS HALLE’N)

Though many voters fret over the financial consequences of a Brexit, others relish the prospect of taking back power from Brussels and reining in high levels of immigration.

Pat Hand, a 50-year-old construction worker, said he would be voting to leave the EU. “The country is in an absolute mess. I work in construction and every single person on my job is not English,” he said.

The referendum battle paused for three days to honor the brutal murder of pro-“Remain” British lawmaker Jo Cox, a mother of two who was stabbed, shot and left bleeding to death on the pavement a week ahead of 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 what would have been her 42nd birthday.

Thomas Mair, 52, has been charged with Cox’s murder.

On his first appearance in court on Saturday, he gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

A psychiatric report was requested.

EU leaders will open a two-day summit in Brussels on Tuesday to deal with the result and decide how to cope with the risk of similar referendums on the continent that could threaten the bloc’s integrity.

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