LONDON (AFP): A British lawmaker died on Thursday after a shock daylight street attack, throwing campaigning for the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union into disarray just a week before the crucial vote.
Jo Cox, a 41-year-old mother-of-two from the opposition Labour Party, was left bleeding on the pavement after reportedly being shot and stabbed in the village of Birstall in northern England, according to witnesses quoted by local media.
Police later announced the death of Cox — a leading campaigner for Britain to remain in the 28-member bloc — and said a 52-year-old man had been arrested.
“We are not in a position to discuss any motive at this time,” West Yorkshire Police chief Dee Collins told reporters.
But she added: “We are not looking for anyone else in connection with this incident.”
After the attack, the “Remain” camp said it was “suspending all campaigning for the day” while a spokesman for the rival Vote Leave group said their ‘battle bus’ was returning to headquarters.
Prime Minister David Cameron cancelled a planned rally during a historic but controversial visit to Gibraltar as part of his campaign for Britain to stay in the EU in the June 23 vote.
“The death of Jo Cox is a tragedy. She was a committed and caring MP. My thoughts are with her husband Brendan and her two young children,” he said on Twitter.
One witness, local cafe owner Clarke Rothwell, said that Cox had been shot three times.
“He shot this lady once and then he shot her again, he fell to the floor, leant over shot her once more in the face area,” he told the BBC.
Sky News television quoted unconfirmed reports that the shooter shouted “Britain first” — possibly a reference to a far-right group of the same name.
The attack halted a frantic day of campaigning, as two new opinion polls indicated that more Britons now want to leave the EU than want to stay.
If they prove correct, Britain would become the first country in the nearly six-decade history of the bloc to leave.
Cameron was already on his way to Gibraltar when news of the attack broke, on the first trip to the rocky outcrop by a British premier since 1968.
His visit has angered Spain, which also claims the tiny territory.
– ‘Difficult to be optimistic’ –
The looming prospect of a Brexit has sparked volatility in the financial markets and sent the pound plunging, and prompted interventions from a number of EU leaders.
“I know it’s very difficult for us to be optimistic today, we know the latest polls,” EU President Donald Tusk said on a visit to Helsinki.
But he added: “The EU will survive, I have no doubt — it is still much easier to survive when you are 27 member states than completely alone”.
At an economic forum in Russia, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said a Brexit would usher in “a period of major uncertainty” in Britain and the EU.
But he too added: “I don’t think that the European Union will be in danger of death if Britain leaves because we continue the process of closer cooperation in Europe.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel used a press conference in Berlin to urge Britain to stay.
She said that in the event of a Brexit, “everything related to the common market, and to the mutual benefit to Britain and all other European member states, would no longer be available to Britain”.
– Too close to call –
A new survey by Ipsos Mori showed support for leaving the EU now stands at 53 percent compared to 47 percent for those who want to stay in, excluding undecided voters.
Another new poll by Survation put “Leave” ahead by 52-48, excluding undecided voters.
Polling expert John Curtice said the race was now too close to call, telling the BBC: “I think we no longer have a favourite in this referendum.”
The Bank of England issued a fresh warning about the consequences of a Brexit, it was “the largest immediate risk facing UK financial markets, and possibly also global financial markets”.
The International Monetary Fund also warned that a vote to leave would rattle markets and weigh on economic growth.
London’s FTSE 100 share index fell 1.1 percent to 5,899, before recovering somewhat to end the day 0.27 percent lower at 5,950.
The pound hit a new two-month low against the euro.
“City watchers are beginning to take the threat seriously and start to price in the possibility of a Brexit,” said Joe Rundle, head of trading at ETX Capital.
Leading business newspaper the Financial Times endorsed the “Remain” camp, saying Britain had benefited from its 43-year membership of the European fold and leaving would “seriously damage” the economy.
“A vote to withdraw would be irrevocable, a grievous blow to the post-1945 liberal world order,” it added.
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