Britain’s startling decision to pull out of the European Union set off a cascade of aftershocks Friday, costing Prime Minister David Cameron his job, plunging the financial markets into turmoil and leaving the country’s future in doubt.
The decisive win by the “Leave” campaign exposed deep divides: young versus old, urban versus rural, Scotland versus England. The recriminations flew fast, not least at Cameron, who made the decision to call the referendum on membership in the bloc to manage a rebellion in his own Conservative Party, only to have it destroy his government and tarnish his legacy.
The result presented another stiff challenge to the leaders of the other leading European powers as they confront spreading populist anger. It was seized on by far-right and anti-Brussels parties across Europe, with Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France calling for a “Frexit” referendum and Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands calling for a “Nexit.”
European officials met in Brussels to begin discussing a response and to emphasize their commitment to strengthening and improving the bloc, whose numbers will drop to 27 upon Britain’s departure.
Financial markets swooned as it became apparent that the Leave forces would prevail, with the British pound and global stock prices plummeting in value early Friday as the vote tally showed the Remain camp falling further behind.
The result stunned investors, who reacted by rushing to the safety of gold and U.S. government bonds as they wondered what will come next for Britain, Europe and the global economy.
U.S. stocks gave up all their gains from earlier in the year. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 610.32, or 3.39 percent, to 17,400.75. The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell 75.91, or 3.59 percent, to 2,037.41. Both indexes took their biggest losses since August. The Nasdaq composite suffered its biggest loss since mid-2011, down 202.06, or 4.12 percent, to 4,707.98. Indexes in Europe and Asia took even larger losses.
With all votes counted, Leave was ahead 52 percent to 48 percent, an enormous snub to Britain’s elite.
The process of withdrawal is likely to play out slowly, perhaps taking years. It will mean pulling out of the world’s largest trading zone, with 508 million residents, including the 65 million people of Britain, and abandoning a commitment to the free movement of labor, capital, goods and services. It has profound implications for Britain’s legal system, which incorporates a large body of regulations that cover everything from product safety to digital privacy, and for Britain’s economy.
The main ways in which the change would be felt are on trade — Britain would lose automatic access to the European single market — and on immigration, with Britain no longer bound to allow any EU citizen to live and work in the country. Britain will have to try to negotiate new deals covering those issues.
For Cameron, the results were a disaster, forcing him to announce his departure only 13 months after he won re-election. Critics said he had led Britain out of Europe for no good reason and the unity of the United Kingdom itself was threatened, with Scotland now more likely to try again to bolt.
Speaking in front of No. 10 Downing St. early Friday, Cameron said he would resign once a new leader had been chosen by his party, which he expected by October.
Scotland voted 62 percent to 38 percent to remain in the European Union, and the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Friday that it was “democratically unacceptable” for Scotland to be dragged out of it against its will. Another independence referendum, she said, “is now highly likely.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Most regional stocks fell Friday. Among the losers, with closing price and percentage decline:
Kansas City Southern