LONDON—Britain voted to leave the European Union after a bitterly-divisive referendum campaign—toppling the prime minister today, sending global markets plunging, and shattering the stability of a project in continental unity designed half-a-century ago to prevent World War III.
The decision launches a years-long process to renegotiate trade, business, and political links between the United Kingdom and what would become a 27-nation bloc—an unprecedented divorce that could take decades to complete.
“The dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” said Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party.
“Let June 23 go down in our history as our independence day!”
Prime Minister David Cameron, who had led the campaign to keep Britain in the EU, said he would resign by October and left it to his successor to decide when to invoke Article 50, which triggers a departure from European Union.
“I will do everything I can as prime minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months,” Cameron said.
“But I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers the country to its next destination.”
Polls ahead of yesterday’s vote had shown a close race, and the momentum increasingly had appeared to be on the “remain” side over the last week.
But in a referendum marked by notably high turnout—72 percent of the more than 46 million registered voters—“leave” won with 52 percent of the votes.
The result shocked investors and stock markets plummeted around the world, with key indexes dropping 10 percent in Germany and about eight percent in Japan and Britain.
The euro fell against the U.S. dollar while the pound dropped to its lowest level since 1985—plunging more than 10 percent from about $1.50 to $1.35 before a slight recovery—on concerns that severing ties with the single market will hurt the U.K. economy and undermine London’s position as a global financial centre.
Bank of England Gov. Mark Carney sought to reassure the markets.
“We are well-prepared for this,” Carney said. “The Treasury and the Bank of England have engaged in extensive contingency planning. . . .
“We have taken all the necessary steps to prepare for today’s events.”
Also seeking to calm frayed nerves was the most prominent “leave” campaigner, Boris Johnson.
Taking a sombre tone unusual for the flamboyant former London mayor, he described the EU as a noble idea which no longer was right for Britain.
He said the result in no way means the United Kingdom will be “less united” or “less European.”
Even as he spoke, however, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said a second Scottish referendum on independence from the United Kingdom is now “highly likely.”
Scotland voted in 2014 to remain a part of the U.K., but that decision was seen by many as being conditional on the U.K. remaining in the EU.
Britain would be the first major country to leave the EU, which was born from the ashes of World War II as European leaders sought to build links and avert future hostility.
With no precedent, the impact on the single market of 500 million people—the world’s largest economy—is unclear.
Leaders from across the EU voiced regret at the British decision.
Germany called top diplomats from the EU’s six founding nations to a meeting tomorrow while the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said the bloc will meet without Britain at a summit next week to assess its future.
Tusk vowed not to let the vote derail the European project.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said.
But already, far-right leaders in France and the Netherlands were calling for a similar anti-EU vote.
The referendum showed Britain to be a sharply divided nation.
Strong pro-EU votes in the economic and cultural powerhouse of London and semi-autonomous Scotland were countered by sweeping anti-establishment sentiment for an exit across the rest of England—from southern seaside towns to rust-belt former industrial powerhouses in the north.
“It’s a vindication of 1,000 years of British democracy,” commuter Jonathan Campbell James declared at the train station in Richmond, southwest London.
“From Magna Carta all the way through to now, we’ve had a slow evolution of democracy, and this vote has vindicated the maturity and depth of the democracy in our country,” he noted.
Others expressed anger and frustration. Olivia Sangster-Bullers, 24, called the result “absolutely disgusting.”
“Good luck to all of us, I say, especially those trying to build a future with our children,” she warned.
Cameron called the referendum largely to silence voices to his right, then staked his reputation on keeping Britain in the EU.
Johnson, who is from the same party, was the most prominent supporter of the “leave” campaign and now becomes a leading contender to replace Cameron.
The vote also dealt a blow to the main opposition Labour Party, which threw its weight behind the “remain” campaign.
“A lot of people’s grievances are coming out and we have got to start listening to them,” said deputy Labour Party leader John McDonnell.