Britain has voted to leave the European Union, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and dealing a huge blow to the European project of greater unity despite pledges by EU officials to remain united.
An emotional Cameron, who led the “Remain” campaign but lost the gamble he took when he called the referendum three years ago, said he would resign as prime minister by October.
“I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination,” the British leader said outside his Downing Street residence in London.
He said his successor should trigger the formal process for Britain to leave the European Union.
“I think it’s right that this new prime minister takes the decision about when to trigger Article 50,” Cameron said.
“I would also reassure Brits living in European countries and European citizens living here that there will be no immediate changes in your circumstances,” he said.
However, the stunned EU vowed to remain united despite Britain voting to leave, as fears grew that a chain reaction of further referendums could tear the bloc apart.
As Brussels, Paris and Berlin woke up to the grim news, leaders warned of a difficult divorce in a sign that Britain will win few concessions in negotiating life outside the circle of the other 27 members of the bloc.
EU leaders said they were saddened by the news, as they struggled to work out what lies ahead, with meetings planned in several capitals ahead of an EU summit on Tuesday.
The four-month campaign was among the divisive ever waged in Britain, with accusations of lying and scare-mongering on both sides and rows on immigration which critics said at times unleashed overt racism.
It also revealed deeper splits in British society, with the pro-Brexit side drawing support from millions of voters who felt left behind by globalization and believed they saw no benefits from Britain’s ethnic diversity and free-market economy.
A pro-EU member of parliament was stabbed and shot to death in the street a week ago by an attacker who later told a court his name was “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Older voters backed Brexit; the young mainly wanted to stay in.
But in the end, concerns over uncontrolled immigration, loss of sovereignty and remote rule from Brussels appear to have trumped almost unanimous warnings of the economic perils of going it alone.