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Europe ends sharply higher as Britain votes on EU membership

European stock indexes finished sharply higher on Thursday, as investors speculated whether Britain would remain a member of the European Union (EU) after the day's referendum.

The pan-European STOXX 600 ended 1.5 percent up provisionally, despite having lost some of its gains during trade. All sectors closed higher, with autos, banks and basic resources leading the charge.

Britain's FTSE 100 index hit a two-month high during trade and closed up 1.2 percent. The French CAC and German DAX soared, closing up nearly 2 percent and 1.9 percent respectively.

The Italian FTSE MIB was the outperformer among peripheral stock indexes, popping 3.7 percent.

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IBEX 35
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Global stock markets appeared optimistic ahead of the U.K. vote on EU membership, although opinion polls wavered between giving the leave side and the remain side the lead.

The latest polls by ComRes and YouGov showed a last-minute increase in the number of voters supporting the remain campaign. All of these polls were released prior to the polling stations opening in the U.K. on Thursday.

U.S. stock indexes rallied on Thursday, with the Dow Jones industrial average more than 150 points higher in late-morning trade.

"I think the market's already voted. ... It looks like they're looking for the stay vote to prevail," Adam Sarhan, CEO of Sarhan Capital, said.

The pound rose to a six-month high against the dollar and traded at around $1.4816 when European stock markets closed.

Investors were more cautious in Asia, where stocks closed mixed on Thursday.

Moller-Maersk soars 11.9%

Mining stocks—many of which are listed on the FTSE 100—got a boost on Thursday. London-listed miners Glencore, BHP Billiton and Anglo American all closed sharply higher.

However, Moller-Maersk was Europe's best-performing stock, closing 11.9 percent up after the shipping giant names Soren Skou as its new chief executive.

Meanwhile, Arcelormittal soared 6 percent, after JPMorgan raised its price target for the stock.

Banks in focus

Mainland European banks were also in focus on Thursday.

In Italy, Banco Popolare said it had raised the 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) required to complete a merger with Banca Popolare di Milano. This sent shares in both lenders sharply higher, closing up 6.5 and 5.6 percent respectively.

Shares of Italy's UniCredit popped over 7 percent, after La Repubblica newspaper reported that Fabio Innocenzi, head of UBS in Italy, was a candidate to be UniCredit's new chief executive.

—With contribution from CNBC's Katy Barnato and Evelyn Cheng. Follow CNBC International on Twitter and Facebook.