LONDON—Britons voted to leave the European Union in a startling rebuke that rattled financial markets and threatened to weaken a continent already strained by multiple crises. The results instantly reshaped Britain’s political scene, as Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the “remain” effort, announced his intention to step down.
With all voting areas counted early Friday, Leave beat Remain 51.9% to 48.1%, severing the U.K.’s ties with the EU after 43 years.
The pound fell more than 11% to its lowest point since 1985 and the outcome triggered steep drops in stock markets and a flight into safe assets such as bonds and gold.
As votes rolled in, a portrait of a deeply polarized nation came into focus. The results pitted London and Scotland, where Remain was strong, against most of the rest of the country. Whoever leads the U.K. will face the challenge of uniting a country that is now openly, and roughly evenly, divided over its relationship with Europe.
The vote also raises questions about the future shape of the U.K. Ahead of the vote, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon signaled that the Scottish National Party would push again for secession if Britain chose to leave the EU.
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party and a key figure in the pro-Brexit camp, said the referendum campaign had transformed British politics, catapulting so-called euroskepticism into the mainstream.
“I hope this victory brings down this failed project and leads us to a Europe of sovereign nation states, trading together, being friends together, cooperating together…Let June 23 go down in history as our independence day,” he said.
The EU will face an epic gut-check over its purpose and future. Senior negotiators of the EU’s leaders—not including Mr. Cameron’s—will gather in Brussels on Sunday to discuss the way forward, four EU diplomats said.
People cheered voting results at a ‘Leave.EU Referendum Party’ in London on Thursday. Photo: hannah mckay/European Pressphoto Agency
Britain’s exit costs the body one of its wealthiest members and one of its biggest military powers. The EU is weighed down with economic and migration crises and turmoil in the nearby Middle East and Russian aggression.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he had already spoken with French president Francois Hollande and will speak with German Chancellor Angela Merkel shortly to discuss ways to prevent a “chain reaction” across the EU.
“It will be a difficult road without Great Britain,” Mr. Schulz said. “We now have to look together with our partners in the world and inside the EU how we tackle this.”
Senior EU lawmakers said the U.K. should immediately trigger negotiations on its exit from the block, a thorny process that could two years as the country disentangles itself from EU institutions. Among the many major unknowns is what the U.K.’s trade relationships, not only with Europe but also other parts of the world, will look like and what happens to the many British citizens living elsewhere in Europe as well as the many EU citizens in the U.K.
The EU now faces the possibility that similar euroskeptic forces across the region will come to life and prompt other members to attempt an exit. Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s anti-immigration National Front, called for a referendum on membership, while Geert Wilders, the leader of the euroskeptic Dutch Freedom Party, welcomed the U.K. result, saying on Twitter that “the Netherlands will be next!”
The outcome was a disappointment for the many in Britain who had voted to remain in the 28-member bloc, driven by concerns of the risks of involved in leaving. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, a leader of the Leave campaign and now a top candidate to succeed Mr. Cameron, didn’t comment as he left his North London home to a chorus of boos from hecklers upset over the vote’s outcome.
Turnout was expected to be an important factor in the result, with many analysts having predicted a high turnout would benefit the Remain camp. But heavy rains swept across southeast England, including London.
Friday’s result is the culmination of an at times vitriolic monthslong campaign that pitted the prime minister against other senior figures in his center-right Conservative Party, with both sides accusing the other of misleading the public. The campaign was paused last week following the brutal killing of British lawmaker and active pro-EU campaigner Jo Cox, who was stabbed and shot in the street in broad daylight.
The debate laid bare the high levels of anti-EU sentiment and distrust of the political establishment among some in the U.K., expressing a frustration with the status quo that has similarities to the forces fueling support for Donald Trump in the U.S. and populist parties elsewhere in Europe.
Immigration became a key issue in the debate amid concerns among some Britons that the government seemed unable to reduce the numbers of EU citizens coming to the U.K. Membership in the bloc ensures the free movement of people between member states.
The result came despite Mr. Cameron’s persistent warnings of the economic and security risks of leaving—a strategy his opponents dubbed “Project Fear.” The prime minister had argued that leaving the EU would trigger a sharp decline in the U.K. economy—what he referred to as the world’s first “DIY recession”—leading to fewer jobs, lower wages and higher prices.
In the final days of campaigning, Mr. Cameron crisscrossed the country in an effort to persuade voters. In a last-ditch appeal on Wednesday, he promised to press Brussels for further overhauls. But he was quickly undercut by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who said Britain had already won the maximum concessions it could.
Source: The Wall Street Journal