Britain has voted to leave the European Union, a historic decision sure to reshape the nation’s place in the world, rattle the Continent and rock political establishments throughout the West.
With all but a handful of the country’s cities and towns reporting Friday morning, the Leave campaign held a 52 percent to 48 percent lead. The BBC called the race for the Leave campaign shortly before 4:45 a.m., with 13.1 million votes having been counted in favor of leaving and 12.2 million in favor of remaining.
The value of the British pound plummeted as financial markets absorbed the news.
Despite opinion polls ahead of the referendum on Thursday that showed either side in a position to win, the outcome nonetheless stunned much of Britain, Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance, highlighting the power of anti-elite, populist and nationalist sentiment at a time of economic and cultural dislocation.
“Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom,” Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, one of the primary forces behind the push for a referendum on leaving the European Union, told cheering supporters just after 4 a.m.
Britain will become the first country to leave the 28-member bloc, which has been increasingly weighed down by its failures to deal fully with a succession of crises, from the financial collapse of 2008 to a resurgent Russia and the massive influx of migrants last year.
The result left Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the charge for Britain to remain a member of the European Union, badly weakened and at risk of losing his job. It was a remarkable victory for the country’s anti-European forces, which not long ago were considered to have little chance of prevailing.
Financial markets, which had been anticipating that Britain would vote to stay in, braced for a day of losses and possible turmoil. Economists had predicted that a vote to leave the bloc could do substantial damage to the British economy.
Mr. Cameron had vowed before the vote to move quickly to begin the divorce process if Britain voted to leave. But even if he follows through — some leaders of the Leave movement have counseled moving slowly — nothing will change immediately on either side of the Channel, with existing trade and immigration rules remaining in place. The withdrawal process is expected to be complex and contentious, though under the bloc’s governing treaty it is effectively limited to two years.
For the European Union, the result is a disaster, raising questions about the direction, cohesion and future of a bloc built on liberal values and shared sovereignty that represents, with NATO, a vital component of Europe’s postwar structure.