EU referendum: Vital vote for Britain, Europe and the world

Thursday's referendum in the UK on membership of the European Union will affect stock markets, currencies and global security

Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson played the clown with a fish market porter and a couple of salmon. Stefan Rousseau / PA via AP
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LONDON // Britain votes today in a referendum that will not only decide whether it stays in the European Union, but will also have worldwide implications for stock markets, currencies and global security.

Voters go to the polls after a campaign that has been unprecedented in its bitterness and has divided the country, with accusations from both campaigns of racism, lying and even treason.

Opinion polls have provided no clue to the likely result. The rival Leave and Remain campaigns have been running virtually neck and neck for weeks, and the last polls yesterday showed leads of one or two percentage points for Leave – within the polling margin of error and a statistical dead heat.

In final campaigning, prime minister David Cameron outlined his vision for a future with Britain retaining its place in the 28-nation bloc. He bristled at the notion that it would be heading in the wrong direction if it stayed in, and rejected the charge that the EU was a moribund institution.

“We are not shackled to a corpse,” Mr Cameron said. “You can see the European economy’s recovery. It’s the largest single market in the world.”

The most notable figure in the Leave camp, the member of parliament and former London mayor Boris Johnson, made a whirlwind helicopter tour of England in support of the Brexit campaign.

Touring the Billingsgate fish market in east London, Mr Johnson hammed it up for the cameras with fish in hand – a not-so-subtle reminder that Britain is an island nation, and proud of its independence and self-assurance.

“It’s time to have a totally new relationship with our friends and partners across the Channel,” Mr Johnson said.

“It’s time to speak up for democracy, and hundreds of millions of people around Europe agree with us. It’s time to break away from the failing and dysfunctional EU system,” Mr Johnson said.

The reach of the EU into every aspect of British life has made the issues more complex than in a general election and prompted groups from scientists to company chief executives to give their opinions.

The global implications have also prompted interventions by figures from president Barack Obama to Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund – usually on the side of Remain, drawing accusations from the Leave campaign that their opponents are supported by an international establishment elite.

The latest contribution came yesterday from the Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who said Britain remaining in the EU was crucial for trans-Atlantic security and common efforts to fight violent extremism.

“A strong UK in a strong Europe is good for the UK, but it’s also good for Nato,” Mr Stoltenberg said.

“We are faced with so much uncertainty, so much unpredictability, with terrorist threats, with a more assertive Russia in the east. I believe that a more fragmented Europe will be something which will only add to the uncertainty which surrounds us.”

Despite the security implications, much of the referendum debate has hinged on the economy. Most business leaders fear a vote to leave would undermine London’s position as a leading financial centre and damage an industry that underpins the British economy.

Nearly 2.2 million people in the UK work in financial services, which contributed £190 billion, more than Dh1 trillion, to the economy in 2014. The UK is the world’s top exporter of financial services, and the sector’s trade surplus of £66bn last year was more than the combined surpluses of the next three leading countries, the United States, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Leaders of about half of Britain’s largest companies made a last-ditch appeal to their employees to vote for remaining in the European Union.

In a letter published yesterday, nearly 1,300 business leaders from about half of Britain’s largest companies said a vote to leave would hurt the British economy.

Stock markets and the pound continued to rise, indicating that investors think the Remain side will win. The betting markets are also solidly on the Remain side: the Betfair exchange said Remain was 76 percent probability. A record 46,499,537 people are registered to vote today. Polling stations open at 7am and close at 10pm in the UK, when the results of exit polls can be published. Regional results will start to come in at about 4am tomorrow, and the full national result is expected at about 7am, which is 10am in the UAE.

* Associated Press and Reuters