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Polls Open in Britain’s Historic EU Referendum

  • VOA Reporters

Chelsea Pensioners leave after voting in the EU referendum, at a polling station in Chelsea in London, Britain, June 23, 2016.

Chelsea Pensioners leave after voting in the EU referendum, at a polling station in Chelsea in London, Britain, June 23, 2016.

LONDON— Immigration, sovereignty, security and Britain’s economic future were on the minds of voters casting the first ballots Thursday in Britain’s historic referendum that by the end of the day will decide whether the country remains in the European Union.

For some braving the London rain early in the day, the decision boiled down to the ideal of peace on which the EU was founded.

“We have for the first time in hundreds years, we’ve had peace in Europe for over 50 years. I’m a man of a generation who hasn’t had to go to fight a war in western Europe and I think that’s a wonderful thing that is worth celebrating,” said Chris Kenyon, 41, one of the first to vote at polling station in the north London borough of Islington.

“For me, this is peace, prosperity and power and I find it extraordinary that we’re at this point of even discussing exiting the European Union,” he told VOA.

As voters went to polling stations, public opinion polls showed the two sides in a dead heat.

High turnout expected

Turnout was expected to be high, culminating a bitter, two-month campaign that centered largely on immigration, a highly sensitive and divisive issue in a nation whose immigration rate has doubled since 2000.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha leave after voting in the EU referendum in London, Thursday, June 23, 2016.

Prime Minister David Cameron has led the call to remain. On Thursday, he made a final pitch to convince undecided voters. “We are stronger, we are better off in a reformed European Union,” he said.

Cameron and other opponents of a Brexit say Britain’s economy will be badly damaged if it breaks away from the 28-nation bloc.

Analysts say Cameron’s political future hangs in the balance depending on the outcome of the poll. The referendum is being held after Cameron in February failed to secure a deal with the EU that did more to restrict benefits on immigrants and curb business and other regulations.

If the voters’ decision Thursday is to leave the EU, pundits say Cameron will lose his mandate and have little choice but to resign, something the British leader has until now said he will not do.

Many voters who attended a memorial for slain British lawmaker Jo Cox link her murder to the bitterness surrounding the Brexit debate, " June 23, 2016. (Photo: L. Ramirez / VOA)

Last-minute appeals

Proponents of a Brexit also made last-minute calls to undecided voters Thursday. Anti-immigration crusader Nigel Farage said “we can vote to get our borders back.”

Polls showed the leave campaign lost some support following the murder on June 16th of anti-Brexit lawmaker Jo Cox. The killing, allegedly by a right-wing extremist with a history of mental health problems, prompted the temporary suspension of campaigns on both sides and caused many British voters to pause and reflect on the bitterness surrounding the vote.

“This referendum has been very divisive and I think that’s completely unnecessary. We ought to be able to work forward on issues of the economy and migration and security, those issues, without being so divisive,” said Kimberly Griffin, a Remain supporter attending a memorial for Cox Thursday at Trafalgar Square. “We never should have had this referendum and I think this is a tragic consequence,” she said.

As the memorial was beginning and a friend of Cox was delivering a eulogy, an airplane, apparently hired by Leave supporters, passed over the square pulling a banner that read “Take Control @voteleave.”

It will not be entirely clear how much of an impact Cox’s murder will have until votes are counted early Friday.

London voter Maggie Hopkinson, attending the memorial, said she was still undecided. Asked what bearing Cox’s murder would have on her decision, she replied, “None whatsoever. She was a beautiful person killed by a madman,” she said.