Millions of people in the United Kingdom woke to a gray and rainy morning on Thursday, facing a decision about the country’s membership of the European Union: To stay, or to leave.
Sam Schwarzkopf, a German neuroscientist who has lived in the U.K. for 17 years, awoke early. His British wife wanted to make sure she could vote in the EU referendum before work.
“I’m confident she voted ‘remain,’” Schwarzkopf said with a laugh. “I hope so.”
Schwarzkopf, like over 2 million others EU citizens in the U.K., could not vote in the referendum because he's not a British citizen. As voting closed on Thursday evening, polls showed supporters of "remain" with a slight lead over those backing "Brexit," or British exit. However, results confirmed early Friday that Britain had voted to break ties with the union.
Schwarzkopf said he felt a sense of relief on Thursday morning. At least the referendum campaign, with its scaremongering against migrants and slurs against experts who warned of Brexit consequences, was over.
“This referendum campaign has been going on too long,” Schwarzkopf said. “I’ve felt totally unproductive all week. I had an argument with a family member about the referendum, and it’s been hard to concentrate all week.”
Ieva Zu, a 32-year-old Lithuanian fashion expert, started her morning as she had every day for weeks -- asking her partner, who works in finance, what the markets were saying about the referendum.
Zu was headed to Lithuania later in the day to visit her family. “My partner was joking: ‘Maybe you won’t be able to come back. And if you do, you will come back to a different country,” Zu said.
She knows that is an extremely unlikely outcome of the referendum. Now the U.K. has voted to leave, the country will need to negotiate the terms of its exit from the EU, a process that could take years and have an uncertain outcome. Among the possibilities: The U.K. could continue allowing EU members to live and work in the U.K., and vice versa, in exchange for access to Europe’s single market; the U.K. could make bilateral immigration agreements with specific European countries; or the U.K. could restrict European migration by imposing admission criteria.
It’s the uncertainty that has been so painful to citizens of European nations who make their homes in the U.K.
“For months, I felt completely fine and wasn't that worried about anything. But this last week, I have been really scared,” said Zita Luiten, a Dutch 25-year-old who works at Liverpool-based charity World Merit. “I have a job I love here and a boyfriend and friends, but I am not confident I want to remain here or if I am even allowed to stay here" if Britain leaves the EU.
“Everything that happens today will affect me, without me having anything to do with it,” said Luiten's colleague, 29-year-old Marlou Hermsen, who also is from the Netherlands. She was constantly checking the polls and her social media feeds, and felt horrified when people posted they had voted to leave. “It becomes personal. You’re looking at people on the street, and you wonder: What are you thinking?”
As Zu rode in a taxi to the airport for her trip to Lithuania, she was struck to see long lines of people going out to vote in the rain. “Looking at them, I felt excluded,” she said. “I am an equal part of this society and contribute to it, but somebody else gets to decide my destiny.”
Zu has built a business and has had a child since moving to the U.K. five years ago to study. Her company, called Fashion Bloc, brings Eastern European fashion to the British market. She said she may have to reconsider her whole business model if Britain voted to leave Europe. “I wouldn’t be sure that the 'Made in Europe' message actually resonates,” she said.
Meanwhile, Schwarzkopf said he feared a vote for Brexit could imperil funding for his work at University College London, which comes from a European research council. “This is one of the most important votes in my life. I wish I could have voted in it,” Schwarzkopf said.
Hermsen planned to stay up all night if necessary as the votes were tallied. Analysts predicted the outcome would be clear by around 3 a.m. local time, with the official results declared Friday around 7 a.m. “I want to know the second it comes out,” Hermsen said.
Zu couldn’t get an internet connection on her flight to Lithuania. So, when she got to her parents' house, she immediately turned on Lithuanian TV, where news stations were covering the referendum and its consequences for Lithuanian citizens. She’ll be following the results from there Thursday night.
Meanwhile, Schwarzkopf, who turned 38 last week, is having a late birthday-cum-referendum results watching party on Thursday night, with a European costume theme. He said most of his colleagues support the "in" campaign, too. “If it the vote is for ‘out,’ there will be a lot of long faces tomorrow,” he said.
This article has been updated to include the outcome of the Brexit vote.