Britain votes to leave EU in historic divorce

Published: June 24, 2016
Leave supporters cheer results at a party after polling stations closed in the Referendum on the European Union in London, Britain, June 23, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Leave supporters cheer results at a party after polling stations closed in the Referendum on the European Union in London, Britain, June 23, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON: Britain has voted to leave the European Union, results from Thursday’s landmark referendum showed, an outcome that sets the country on an uncertain path and deals the largest setback to European efforts to forge greater unity since World War Two.

World financial markets dived as nearly complete results showed a 51.8/48.2 percent split for leaving. Sterling suffered its biggest one-day fall of more than 10 percent against the dollar, hitting a 31-year low on market fears the decision will hit investment in the world’s 5th largest economy.

The vote will initiate at least two years of messy divorce proceedings with the EU, raise questions over London’s role as a global financial capital and put huge pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to resign, though he pledged during the campaign to stay on whatever the result.

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The euro slumped more than 3 per cent against the dollar on concerns a Brexit vote will do wider economic and political damage to what will become a 27-member union. Investors poured into safe-haven assets including gold, and the yen surged. European shares were on course to open 6 to 7.5 percent lower.

There was no immediate comment from the Bank of England. Global policymakers prepared for action to stabilize markets, with Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso promising to “respond as needed” in the currency market.

Yet there was euphoria among Britain’s eurosceptic forces, claiming a victory they styled as a protest against British political leaders, big business and foreign leaders including Barack Obama who had urged Britain to stay in the bloc.

“Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” said Nigel Farage, leader of the eurosceptic UK Independence Party.

“If the predictions are right, this will be a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people … Let June 23 go down in our history as our independence day.”

He called the EU a “doomed project”.

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By 5.41 a.m. (0441 GMT), 93 percent of the vote had been counted, making Leave’s lead impossible to reverse.

Asked if Cameron, who called the referendum in 2013 and campaigned to stay in the bloc, should resign if Britain voted for Brexit, Farage said: “Immediately.”

An aide working in Cameron’s office told reporters: “We’re in uncharted territory… Everyone’s just really tired. They haven’t slept.”

The United Kingdom itself now faces a threat to its survival, as Scotland voted 62 percent in favor of staying in the EU and is likely to press for a new referendum on whether to become independent after its 2014 vote to stay in the UK.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Thursday’s vote “makes clear that the people of Scotland see their future as part of the European Union.”

Northern Ireland’s largest Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, said the result intensified the case for a vote on whether to quit the United Kingdom.

European politicians reacted with shock. “Please tell me I’m still sleeping and this is all just a bad nightmare!” former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb tweeted.

Quitting the EU could cost Britain access to the EU’s trade barrier-free single market and mean it must seek new trade accords with countries around the world. President Barack Obama says it would be at the “back of a queue” for a U.S. pact.

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The EU for its part will emerge economically and politically weakened, facing the departure not only of its most free-market proponent but also a member country that wields a U.N. Security Council veto and runs a powerful army. In one go, the bloc will lose around a sixth of its total economic output.

Cameron is expected to formally report the result to his European counterparts within days and prepare negotiations for the first exit by a member state from the EU — an exit he has said would be irreversible.

The British leader called the referendum in 2013 in a bid to head off pressure from local eurosceptics, including within his own party. Initially billed as an easy ride, the vote has now put his political future on the line. Party ally Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who became the most recognizable face of the “leave” camp, is now widely tipped to seek his job.

Opinion polls had see-sawed throughout an acrimonious four-month campaign, but the Remain camp edged ahead last week after a pro-EU member of parliament, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed to death by a man shouting “Britain first”. The attack shocked Britons and raised questions about whether the tone of the debate was fuelling intolerance and hatred.

In the end though, the pro-EU camp was powerless to stop a tide of anti-establishment feeling and disenchantment with a Europe that many Britons see as remote, bureaucratic and mired in permanent crises.

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Torn apart

Britain, which joined the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, has always been an ambivalent member. A  firm supporter of  free trade, tearing down internal economic barriers and expanding the EU to take in ex-communist eastern states, it opted out of joining the euro single currency or the Schengen border-free zone.

Cameron’s ruling Conservatives in particular have risked being torn apart by a slow by steady rise in euroscepticism ever since differences over Europe triggered the ousting of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

World leaders including Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, NATO and Commonwealth governments had all urged a “Remain” vote, saying Britain would be stronger and more influential in the EU than outside.

Yet the four-month campaign has been among the divisive ever waged in Britain, with accusations of lying and scare-mongering on both sides and rows on immigration which critics said at times unleashed overt racism.

It also revealed deeper splits in British society, with the pro-Brexit side drawing support from millions of voters who felt left behind by globalization and believed they saw no benefits from Britain’s ethnic diversity and free-market economy.

Concerns over uncontrolled immigration, loss of sovereignty, remote rule from Brussels and a protest vote from working class northern voters appear to have trumped almost unanimous warnings of the economic perils of going it alone.

“People are concerned about how they have been treated with austerity and how their wages have been frozen for about seven years,” said John McDonnell, finance spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, which had favored a Remain vote.

“A lots of people’s grievances have come out and we have got to start listening to them.”

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Surveys on public attitudes across the EU have for years shown growing disenchantment with European integration, a project that began in the 1950s as a common market for steel and coal but which over the years offered members the chance to join up to a single currency and do away with old national borders.

Yet while it has become a feature of everyday life seen in everything from EU-sponsored student exchanges to rules on mobile telephone roaming charges, the EU lost public support over its handling of the 2009 sovereign debt crisis that inflicted painful austerity on much of the south of the continent and left many citizens in northern countries resentful at having to fund bailouts.

Right-wing British eurosceptics seized on the euro zone crisis to argue that Britain was “shackled to a corpse”.

Aside from Denmark-ruled Greenland, which left the EEC in 1985 after a row over fishing rights, Britain is the first country to leave the EU, and even EU officials say it takes the continent into uncharted territory.

EU affairs ministers and ambassadors from member states gather in Luxembourg by 10 a.m. (0800 GMT) for routine talks that will provide the first chance for many to react. A regular EU summit has been pushed back to next Tuesday and Wednesday, when Cameron may trigger Article 50 of the EU’s treaty, the legal basis for a country to leave, setting in motion two years of divorce negotiations.

Even less clear at this stage is what sort of relationship Britain will seek to negotiate with the EU once it has left.

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To retain access to the single market, vital for its giant financial services sector, London would have to adopt all EU regulation without having a say in its shaping, and pay a substantial contribution to Brussels coffers for market access, as Norway and Switzerland do. EU officials have said UK-based banks and financial companies would lose automatic “passport” access to sell services across Europe if Britain ceased to apply the EU principles of free movement of goods, capital, services and people.

Aside from trade, huge questions now face the millions of British expatriates who live freely elsewhere in the bloc and enjoy equal access to health and other benefits, as well as some 2 million EU citizens who live and work in Britain.

Core founding members of the EU such as France and Germany will be wary of making life too easy for Britain for fear of encouraging eurosceptics across the continent to call for referendums in their countries.

French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron said last weekend that “when you’re out, you’re out”, insisting Britain could expect no preferential treatment. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has issued similar warnings.

Both countries, whose painful post-war reconciliation formed the basis for the future union of Europe, must now deal with buoyant anti-EU parties at home, with the Alternative fuer Deutschland  in Germany and the Front National in France.


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Reader Comments (35)

  • sheraz
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:00AM

    The King is dead!Recommend

  • Raj - USA
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:10AM

    Very bad news. EU is breaking up because of issues of refugees and asylum seekers from islamic countries.Recommend

  • sabi
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:12AM

    Now Pakistan has a better chance of attracting huge investments from Great Britain. Recommend

  • Wowowow
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:13AM

    EU is a sinking ship and more countries will follow the UK example soon. The Greek Debt issue and refugee crisis have shown the EU to be a rotten and ossified organizationRecommend

  • Travis
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:14AM

    The millions of Islamic refugees flooding into EU was the last straw. Merkel made a big mistake that cost Europe dearly. UK was never going to put up with more Muslims given the troubles they have with their largish Muslim population. In the end, it is a good move that will pay off in the long run. The Brexit contagion will likely spread all over Europe. France will be next.Recommend

  • Bunny Rabbit
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:16AM

    Boo hoo hoo ..what a sad day for Brits living and working abroad successfully . Recommend

  • Mirza Asif Baig
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:18AM

    It is their internal Matter. :PRecommend

  • Xman
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:39AM

    Good good, now they will be on a slippery slope downwards, taking the rest of Europe down with them. Strike one for the poor, helpless migrants, whose homes, families, and lives they destroyed. Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:41AM

    High time Pakistan held a national referendum to determine whether staying in SAARC is actually worthwhile…?Recommend

  • Adnan Siddiqi
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:50AM

    Democracy at it’s finest.Recommend

  • Asif
    Jun 24, 2016 - 11:34AM

    Dignified man: David Cameron resigns
    Undignified man: Nawaz Sharif stays no matter what. Killed scores, corruption made billions from projects, Panamagate scandal. Will only leave two ways, forced out by Army and …. .Recommend

  • vinsin
    Jun 24, 2016 - 12:01PM

    Muslim immigration and their integration are main reasons. Merkel is also responsible for this. Anyway their was no political unity in first place and Muslims are again successful in partitioning. In the long run it would be good for Britain. Recommend

  • Dr. Ashraf Kh
    Jun 24, 2016 - 12:22PM

    This may be bad news for many in Europe, but great news for Common Wealth Countries, who are still holding allegiance with Her Majesty.

    For several years many of jobs opportunities was seized from Asian and replaced with Eastern European, non-English speaking countries. Now Briton will look back to her colonies for trade and economic relationship.

    Also great opportunities for scholars from English speaking countries to engaged in research with their counterpart in academia as past several years it was reserved by non-English speaking European. Recommend

  • Rustam
    Jun 24, 2016 - 12:24PM

    @Raj – USA: Your post reflects the hate you have for Muslims and which is occasionally manifested in India by people having the same mentality as yours. I do no need to remind you, as massacre of Muslims in Gujarat is a very recent history. Recommend

  • Kaveri
    Jun 24, 2016 - 1:16PM

    Good news for Indians wanting to work in the UK. Recommend

  • Ad
    Jun 24, 2016 - 1:18PM

    Since self-driving taxis are not yet a reality, this is great news for Pakistanis too !!Recommend

  • Jun 24, 2016 - 2:10PM

    I believe Britain will see its glory day again. Not in short term but in long term. They got highly educated population and industries. They don,t need Europe as much is Europe need UK. Its like Afghanistan is depended on Pakistan but not in reverse. As long is immigration is concern they will need migrants because English people like small families. Recommend

  • Hameed
    Jun 24, 2016 - 2:56PM

    @Haji Atiya:

    High time Pakistan held a national referendum to determine whether staying in SAARC is actually worthwhile…?

    Before that a referendum if provinces want to stay together ala Scotland referendum.Recommend

  • Rahul
    Jun 24, 2016 - 3:09PM

    Can Pakistan too vote itself out of SAARC?Recommend

  • M. Emad
    Jun 24, 2016 - 4:46PM

    UK-EU current situation is somewhat like the period of 1971 March 1 to 25 Pakistan — but in a civilized manner.Recommend

  • Hindsight
    Jun 24, 2016 - 5:36PM

    In hindsight before the British left the Subcontinent in August 1947, they should have had a similar referendum, whether India be split into two states, or remain one. This would have saved millions of lives, a decision on partition or no partition could have been done peacefully Recommend

  • reader
    Jun 24, 2016 - 6:22PM

    If referendums were a means to resolve political issues, every country would need to have referendums. The British should have done it in 1947 before leaving the Subcontinent, Pakistan should have done it in 1971 in East Pakistan. Referendums proves the maturity of a nation whether they are able to accept the result even if unpalatable to the powerful.Recommend

  • curious2
    Jun 24, 2016 - 6:51PM

    @Rustam: Anybody who doesn’t believe that immigration was a major factor in Brexit knows little about the subject. Recommend

  • Acorn Guts
    Jun 24, 2016 - 8:35PM

    @Bunny Rabbit:
    Can’t get any worse from what we left behind. Recommend

  • hnr
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:02PM

    The fear of immigrants flooding into an already fragile British society is what drove Britons for Brexit.Recommend

  • hnr
    Jun 24, 2016 - 10:02PM

    @Haji Atiya:
    No need for a referendum It is already dead.Recommend

  • Parvez
    Jun 25, 2016 - 12:29AM

    This is not so much a vote against the EU………. as its against the policies of the British government over the past many years.Recommend

  • Insaaf
    Jun 25, 2016 - 3:57AM

    @hnr: The “recommended” button isn’t working, otherwise I would have voted for your commentRecommend

  • Ih
    Jun 25, 2016 - 4:00AM

    This is “black Swan”. Ms Clinton should be deeply worried it might happen in USA with mr Trump in White House. If the average white deeply alienated person votes in large numbers election result is similar to uk.Recommend

  • M.S.
    Jun 25, 2016 - 7:33AM

    It’s a sad day for all Desi people who go to cheap countries to spend their welfare money.Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Jun 25, 2016 - 7:58AM

    What is “dead” ? The process of holding a meaningful referendum in Pakistan or SAARC or both ?Recommend

  • Advice
    Jun 25, 2016 - 10:17AM

    Bush and Blair are to blame for the Iraq war and then the rise of the I.S. In hindsight, Saddam with all his misrule was better than what is there now, i.e. anarchy. The referendum is because of the refugee crises. Europeans do not want Syrians, Iraq’s, etc on their soil, they wish to preserve their way of life, any nation would, does Pakistan want Afghans on their soil??. Obviously not, why should the Europeans or the Turks?. Politicians think very very short term, both Bush and Blair are history their terms ended long time back, but what they did for the world is for all to see. Iraq and Syria have for all practical purpose have broken up, E.U. is breaking up, and may be even the United Kingdom will break up, with Scotland wanting to remain in the E.U. Politicians do not think, and the poor people have to pay the price. So dear readers beware of Politicians!!!!Recommend

  • prabhjyot Singh madan
    Jun 25, 2016 - 11:26AM

    Bad news for a united world. Who will ask now for a united Asian union now? Rab rakhaRecommend

  • Our History
    Jun 25, 2016 - 11:30AM

    This referendum has one most important lesson for the landed Pakistani Political class and “others”, is the almost immediate resignation of the British Prime Minister, after losing the vote. In 1971 when the people en masse from East Pakistan wanted independence, those in power refused, what happened afterwards, is history written in blood. It is perhaps the most brutal suppression in human history. Rather than bow to the will of millions and millions of people i.e. the majority of the population of Pakistan at that time, those in power did the worst possible thing. How many lost their lives is still a matter of contention, and varies from 300,000 to 3,000,000. This is not about figures, this is about leadership at its very worst, this is about sheer contempt that our leaders have towards their people, this is about the mind boggling madness the leaders exhibited at that time. History will never ever forget at what cost East Pakistan came into being. Leaving the E.U. may be good or bad, but at least it was done peacefully, salute to the people of United Kingdom. Recommend

  • A
    Jun 25, 2016 - 11:31PM

    @Haji Atiya: Nobody forced Pakistan to be in SAARC, but No! Pak will stay in SAARC and will keep on sabotaging any progress that SAARC tries to make at the behest of China.Recommend

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