‘Brexit’ vote stuns world
LONDON—Britain has voted to leave the European Union (EU), a historic decision sure to reshape the nation’s place in the world, rattle the continent and rock political establishments throughout the West.
Not long after the vote tally was completed, Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the campaign to remain in the bloc, appeared in front of 10 Downing Street to announce that he planned to step down by October, saying the country deserved a leader committed to carrying out the will of the people.
The stunning turn of events was accompanied by a plunge in the financial markets, with the value of the British pound and stock prices in Asia plummeting.
The margin of victory startled even proponents of a British exit or “Brexit.” The “Leave” campaign won by
52 percent to 48 percent.
More than 17.4 million people voted in the referendum on Thursday to sever ties with the European Union, and about 16.1 million to remain in the bloc.
“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 our country to its next destination.”
Despite opinion polls before the referendum that showed either side in a position to win, the outcome nonetheless stunned much of Britain, Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance, highlighting the power of antielite, populist and nationalist sentiment at a time of economic and cultural dislocation.
“Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, one of the primary forces behind the push for a referendum on leaving the European Union, told cheering supporters just after 4 a.m.
Chuka Umunna, a Labor lawmaker, called the vote “a seismic moment for our country.”
Keith Vaz, another Labor legislator, said: “This is a crushing decision; this is a terrible day for Britain and a terrible day for Europe. In 1,000 years, I would never have believed that the British people would vote for this.”
In Berlin, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called the news “truly sobering” and said, “It looks like a sad day for Europe and for Britain.”
First to leave EU
Britain will become the first country to leave the 28-member bloc, which has been increasingly weighed down by its failures to deal fully with a succession of crises, from the financial collapse of 2008 to a resurgent Russia and the huge influx of migrants last year.
In response, Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, said the assembly would hold an emergency session on Tuesday to discuss the decision by British voters.
It was a remarkable victory for the country’s anti-Europe forces, which not long ago were considered to have little chance of prevailing.
Economists had predicted that a vote to leave the bloc could do substantial damage to the British economy, but Mark Carney, the head of Bank of England, sought to deal with those concerns on Friday, saying the bank had made extensive contingency plans and had taken “all the necessary steps” to prepare.
Cameron had vowed before the vote to move quickly to begin the divorce process if Britain opted to leave.
But he suggested on Friday that he would leave the start of the formal process to his successor while seeking in the interim to calm the atmosphere before taking any action.
The withdrawal process is expected to be complex and contentious, though under the bloc’s governing treaty it is effectively limited to two years.
In the meantime, nothing will change immediately on either side of the channel, with existing trade and immigration rules remaining in place.
Vow of unity
A stunned European Union vowed to remain united despite the British vote, as fears grew that a “chain reaction” of further referendums could tear the bloc apart.
As Brussels, Paris and Berlin woke up to the grim news, leaders warned of a difficult divorce in a sign that Britain will win few concessions in negotiating life outside the circle of the other 27 members of the bloc.
“Today on behalf of the 27 leaders, I can say that we are determined to keep our unity as 27,” EU President Donald Tusk told reporters in Brussels in the first official reaction to the vote.
With global markets in turmoil, Tusk who had earlier warned that a Leave vote could “end Western political civilization,” said it was “a historic moment but for sure not a moment for hysterical reactions.”
Although the EU had recently gone through “the most difficult” years in its
60-year history, it was worth remembering that “what does not kill you makes you stronger,” he said.
Disaster for EU
But the result of the vote is a disaster for the European Union, raising questions about the direction, cohesion and future of a bloc built on liberal values and shared sovereignty that represents, with Nato, a vital component of Europe’s postwar structure.
Britain is the second-largest economy after Germany in the European Union, a nuclear power with a seat on the United Nations Security Council, an advocate of free-market economics and a close ally of the United States.
The loss of Britain is an enormous blow to the credibility of a bloc already under pressure from slow growth, high unemployment, the migrant crisis, Greece’s debt woes and the conflict in Ukraine.
“The main impact will be massive disorder in the EU system for the next two years,” said Thierry de Montbrial, founder and executive chair of the French Institute of International Relations.
“There will be huge political transition costs, on how to solve the British exit, and the risk of a domino effect or bank run from other countries that think of leaving,” he said.
Europe will have to “reorganize itself in a system of different degrees of association,” said Karl Kaiser, a Harvard professor and former director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
“Europe does have an interest in keeping Britain in the single market, if possible, and in an ad hoc security relationship,” he said.
While leaders of the Leave campaign spoke earnestly about sovereignty and the supremacy of Parliament or in honeyed tones about “the bright sunlit uplands” of Britain’s future free of Brussels, it was anxiety about immigration—membership in the European Union means freedom of movement and labor throughout the bloc—that defined and probably swung the campaign.
With net migration to Britain of 330,000 people in 2015, more than half of them from the European Union, Cameron had no effective response to how he could limit the influx.
And there was no question that while the immigrants contributed more to the economy and to tax receipts than they cost, parts of Britain felt that its national identity was under assault and that the influx was putting substantial pressure on schools, healthcare and housing.
In England especially, 85 percent of the population of Britain, many people fell back on national pride, cultural exceptionalism and nostalgia.
Many English voters chose to believe the insistence of anti-Europe leaders like Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and potential challenger to Cameron, that as a great nation, Britain would be more powerful and successful outside the European Union than inside.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, by contrast, there was a strong pro-Europe feeling that has only increased tensions within the United Kingdom itself.
With this result, those who favor Scottish independence will have a new wind for another referendum, even if they may wish to wait until they are sure to win one.
Scotland voted 62 percent to 38 percent to remain in the European Union. Most people in Northern Ireland also voted to remain in the European Union.
“Scotland has delivered a strong, unequivocal vote to remain in the EU, and I welcome that endorsement of our European status,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, said. “Scotland has spoken, and spoken decisively.”
Northern Ireland, which has long had an open border with the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union, will face a new reality.
That open border will become the border between the European Union and a nonmember, and for security and economic reasons it will have to be equipped with border posts to check goods and passports.
Cameron felt pushed into announcing the referendum in 2013 by the anti-Europe wing of his own party, amplified by concerns among other Tories that UK Independence Party and Farage were cutting too sharply into the Conservative vote.
Still, Cameron entered the campaign with the force of economic experts, US President Barack Obama, European allies and big business behind him.
But as ever, referendums are not about the question asked but the political mood at the time, and the political mood is sour. Reports from New York Times News Service, AFP
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