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Thursday, June 23, 2016

UK votes in historic referendum on EU membership

LONDON (CNN) - After months of toxic and divisive campaigns, British voters headed to the polls Thursday in a historic referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the 28-member European Union

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.

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

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.

Britain was a nation divided as it awaited 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.

Sides clash in debate

The "Leave" and "Remain" camps squared off Tuesday night during a fiery, two-hour televised debate billed as the final centerpiece of the campaign.

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.

Why the Brexit vote is so close

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 saying 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."

Safer in or out of EU? Why security is key to Brexit vote

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.

'Out is out'

If the "Leave" campaign wins, observers predict a political crisis, with British Prime Minister David Cameron struggling to control his ruling Conservative Party. Cameron backs the "Remain" side of the campaign.

Brexit: What does it mean for the U.S.?

Cameron negotiated with European leaders this year to secure improved terms of membership in the bloc if Britain stayed in the EU.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned 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 volatile, with both sides accusing the other of lying and making up their arguments.

Last week, Labour's Jo Cox, a pro-"Remain" advocate in her first term in Parliament, was killed in her constituency in northern England. 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 will ripple on for some time.

"I think we have changed the political agenda, and not just for the vote ... but I suspect we have changed it for the foreseeable future," said UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a Brexit advocate,

Final decision

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.

EU referendum: What does it mean to you?

Polling stations across the UK will close at 10 p.m. (5 p.m. ET), with the first results expected about midnight (7 p.m. ET).

Key players in the referendum

The final result is expected to be announced Friday morning.

CNN's Bryony Jones, Phil Black, Nic Robertson, Richard Allen Greene, Simon Cullen, Sebastian Shukla, Tim Lister and Anais Furtade contributed to this report.

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