In or out? Polls close in historic UK referendum on EU membership

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LONDON (CNN) — After months of toxic and divisive campaigns, polls are now closed after British voters cast their ballots Thursday in a historic referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the 28-member European Union.

Though final results aren’t expected until Friday morning, UK Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage tells Sky news “it looks like ‘remain’ will edge it” in EU referendum.

Citizens braved the morning drizzle as they lined up at the polls in London — umbrellas in hand.

Weather across the rest of the region was mixed, with sunshine forecast in parts of Scotland and heavy showers set to move across Northern Ireland.

A record number of people — almost 46.5 million — are registered to take part in the once-in-a generation vote.

The registered voters include Britons from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar — a British territory off the southern coast of Spain.

The question they’ve been pondering for months: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

To accommodate the record numbers, some schools shut down to serve as polling stations, but it was class as usual for others.

‘Serious consequences’

A day before the vote, British politicians from both sides made crucial final pitches Wednesday to a bitterly divided electorate.

But Britain was a nation divided as it awaits a decision that will shape the direction of the country and its place in the world for decades.

Polls have consistently shown voters split down the middle, with the outcome too close to call.

Leading political parties and newspapers are similarly divided on the so-called Brexit, or British exit, from the European Union — an outcome that would be a huge blow to the European project.

French President Francois Hollande warned that the future of the European Union was at stake.

“The departure of a country that is, geographically, historically, politically in the European Union would have extremely serious consequences,” he said. “It would also have extremely serious consequences for them, too.”

Britain’s wavering voters are likely to be the deciders of this momentous vote.

And with so much confusion following an acrimonious campaign — and many of the fundamentals of the debate in dispute by opposing camps — the outcome may come down to gut instinct.

Sides clash in debate

The “Leave” and “Remain” camps attempted to appeal to those instincts as they squared off Tuesday night for a fiery, two-hour televised “Great Debate,” billed as the final centerpiece of the campaign.

Amid a gladiatorial atmosphere before 6,000 in London’s Wembley Stadium, six speakers representing the opposing camps clashed on core issues such as whether leaving the EU would help or hurt Britain’s economy.

“Leave” campaigner Boris Johnson, a member of parliament and former London mayor, described the EU as “a job-destroying engine.”

“You can see it all across southern Europe and you can see it alas in this country as well,” he said, lambasting Brussels for imposing a “multitude of regulations” on British business.

By contrast, the “Remain” camp has argued that a vote to leave would do lasting harm to Britain’s economy.

The UK has been a member of the European Union (and its precursors) since 1973.

Familiar themes

The debate focused on familiar themes of security, sovereignty and immigration, with Johnson’s successor as London mayor, “Remain” advocate Sadiq Khan, accusing his opponents of “scaremongering” by raising the specter of Turkey joining the EU, potentially giving its citizens free movement within the union.

“Turkey is not set to join the EU,” he said, holding up a pro-“Leave” leaflet that highlighted Turkey’s proximity to war-torn Syria and Iraq. “You’re telling lies and you’re scaring people.”

In turn, Johnson said it was the “Remain” camp that was guilty of drumming up fear, arguing that a Brexit offered “hope.”

“If we vote ‘Leave,’ we can take back our country,” he said to raucous applause. “This Thursday can be our country’s independence day.”

The “Leave” campaign has received more funding than its opponents, according to the latest figures from Britain’s Electoral Commission.

They showed that the pro-Brexit camp received just under £15.6 million ($22.9 million) in donations, while “Remain” got £11.9 million ($17.5 million) from February 1 to June 9.

Cameron’s final push

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has led the “Remain” campaign, did not appear in the debate but made a televised pitch to voters.

He urged them “to think about the hopes and dreams of your children and grandchildren” as they cast their votes.

He said that belonging to the EU was good for Britain’s economy, security and international standing, and warned that a Brexit would be irreversible.

Cameron repeated his message during an appearance in Bristol.

“If we want the bigger economy and more jobs, we’re better if we do it together,” he said.

“If we want to fight climate change, we’re better if we do it together. If we want to win against the terrorists and keep our country safe, we’re better if we do it together.”

‘Out is out’

If the leave campaign wins, observers predict a political crisis, with Cameron struggling to remain in control of his ruling Conservative Party if he backed the losing side on such a critical issue.

Earlier this year, Cameron negotiated with European leaders to secure improved terms of membership in the bloc if Britain remained.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned Wednesday that there could be no renegotiation.

“We have concluded the deal with the Prime Minister; he got the maximum he could receive, and we gave the maximum we could give so there will be no kind of renegotiation,” he said.

“Out is out.”

Toxic debates

The political climate leading up to the referendum has been unusually toxic, with both sides accusing the other of lying and making up their arguments.

Last week, the country was shocked by the killing of Labour’s Jo Cox, a pro-“Remain” advocate in her first term in Parliament. She was the first member of Parliament to be killed in office in 26 years.

Brendan Cox, her widower, told the BBC on Tuesday that she had been concerned about politics becoming “too tribal and unthinking.”

“She was very worried that the language was coarsening and people were driven to take more extreme positions,” he said.

Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s vote, its consequences are likely to be felt for some time.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a Brexit advocate, said the referendum has brought major changes to British politics. .

“I think we have changed the political agenda, and not just for the vote coming tomorrow, but I suspect we have changed it for the foreseeable future,” he said Wednesday.

Strict rules

British citizens over age 18, along with Irish and Commonwealth citizens living in the UK, delivered their verdict at the ballot box Thursday. British citizens living abroad have already cast their votes by mail.

The final, nationwide result is expected to be announced Friday morning.

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