Nicola Sturgeon is to directly lobby European Union member states for support in ensuring that Scotland can remain part of the EU, after Scots voted emphatically against Brexit on Thursday.
The first minister has disclosed that she is to invite all EU diplomats based in Scotland to a summit at her official residence in Edinburgh within the next two weeks, in a bid to sidestep the UK government.
After Scotland voted 62% to 38% to stay in the EU, she said she planned to begin immediate discussions with the European commission to “protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU and our place in the single market”.
The first minister made the announcement after an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday morning. She added that she would establish an advisory body of financial, legal and diplomatic experts who can advise her government on its options for retaining EU membership after Thursday’s UK-wide vote, by 52% to 48%, to leave the EU.
“Cabinet agreed we would begin immediate discussions with the EU institutions and other member states to explore all the possible options to protect Scotland’s place in the EU,” she said.
The consequences of Britain’s decision to leave the EU continued to emerge on Saturday, including:
- The UK’s most senior EU official, European commissioner Jonathan Hill, resigned his post. Lord Hill, who was sent to Brussels by David Cameron and took the highly-prized portfolio of financial services, said he didn’t believe it was right for him to carry on in the post.
- EU governments continued to press Britain to trigger article 50 immediately, beginning the Brexit process. Foreign ministers from across the continent, who met in Berlin on Saturday, said talks on the UK’s exit must begin promptly and urged a new British prime minister to take office quickly.
- Jeremy Corbyn dismissed an alleged plot to oust him as Labour leader in the coming days. Speaking in central London, Corbyn said Conservative austerity had paved the way for a Brexit vote, adding that the country must have an honest discussion about immigration. He was also heckled at London’s Pride festival.
- David Cameron appeared at a military event in Cleethorpes, less than 24 hours after he announced his intention to step down as prime minister and amid rumours about his possible replacement. Theresa May has emerged as the likely opposition to leading leave campaigner Boris Johnson.
- British businesses continued to feel the effect of the Brexit vote, with estate agents warning that property deals could fall through and retailers admitting that food and clothing prices could rise in the coming days.
- The leave campaign appeared to row back on a series of high-profile campaign pledges, including suggestions that immigration would not go down, free movement of labour would remain in place and Brexit savings would not go to the NHS.
In a further significant development, Scottish Labour’s executive committee opened up the prospect it could eventually endorse independence after agreeing to “consider all options” on Scotland’s future in the UK.
Until now, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, had consistently opposed a second referendum, but the party is now to consult unions, parliamentarians and members on its position after the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU. Party officials said the political situation was so fluid and uncertain, it was impossible to arrive at a fixed position now on Scotland’s future.
Dugdale said Scottish Labour believed in the UK and pooling resources and sovereignty, but it now had to apply those values “to do the best thing for Scotland and the interests of working people within it”.
Sturgeon said the cabinet had endorsed her decision on Friday to begin immediate preparations for a second Scottish independence referendum. Her officials refused to confirm indications that a new bill would be in her programme for government in September.
In a statement outside her Bute House residence in Edinburgh, Sturgeon did not repeat her view on Friday that a new vote was highly likely, but said that “a second independence referendum is clearly an option that requires to be on the table and it is very much on the table.
“And to ensure that option is a deliverable one in the required timetable, steps will be taken to ensure that the necessary legislation is in place. Cabinet this morning formally agreed to that work.”
She added: “We are determined to act decisively but in a way which builds unity across Scotland about the way forward.” The advisory panel is expected to include pro-UK figures and non-nationalists.
In an immediate boost for Sturgeon, the Labour-supporting Daily Record newspaper publicly endorsed her decision to pursue the option of a second independence vote by splashing “EU go girl” on its front page on Saturday. It said Sturgeon had “little option” after the Brexit vote by England and Wales. The Glasgow Herald newspaper said Sturgeon was justified in seeking that option in its editorial.
Her government’s first direct overtures to the EU will come on Monday when the Scottish cabinet secretary for rural economy, Fergus Ewing, will take part in the Agrifish council in Luxembourg and then meet the EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan, and set out Sturgeon’s pro-membership agenda.
Scottish government sources said Sturgeon was pursuing a twin-track approach, to prepare for a fresh independence referendum within two years at the same time as investigating whether Scotland could be granted some form of associative status by the EU while remaining part of the UK.
Her advisers and officials are to consult constitutional and legal experts, including those invited to join her advisory body, on alternatives to outright independence to retain close EU ties and rights. It is understood MSPs in the Tories and Greens are studying that route.
There is no direct precedent in EU history for a part or region of an EU member having a different status than the member state of which it is part, other than the decision by Greenland in 1984 to quit the EU in protest at its fishing policies.
Greenland left the EU while remaining an autonomous part of member state Denmark, and while retaining some EU benefits. The Faroe Islands, while also part of Denmark, are excluded from EU membership.
Sturgeon is extremely keen to ensure her government has parallel options available since she remains worried about the acute constitutional, legal and economic challenges an independent Scotland would face.
She is expected to candidly admit in coming weeks that she cannot yet answer many pressing questions about independence now the UK is leaving the EU. Those are thought to include Scotland’s currency options and its share of UK debt.
There is a large diplomatic corps in Edinburgh, including consuls general from several of the major world powers and from other EU member states. She said at her summit with diplomats she would ask their help in reassuring their nationals living in Scotland that they were welcomed and cherished.
“People from other EU countries who have done us the honour of choosing Scotland as their home are welcome here. I want to make sure that is a message we get across strongly,” she added.
A European commission spokeswoman declined to comment on Sturgeon’s remarks, or whether EU officials would enter into talks with the Scottish government. “If there is a request [for talks], I am sure there will be a response, but I cannot offer any comments on things that have not happened,” she said. “For the time being the UK is still a member of the EU and a dialogue has not yet started.”
The European commission head, Jean-Claude Juncker, was scheduled to speak with the Scottish first minister on Friday. But when the question of Scottish independence was on the table two years ago, EU officials had insisted that were it an independent country, Scotland would have to apply to join the EU. Under the EU treaty article 49, any democratic European country can apply to join the EU.
But some experts think it is possible that the rest of the EU may agree to put Scotland on a separate fast-track process, rather than bracketing it with EU aspirants such as Albania and Turkey.
Steve Peers, professor of law at the University of Essex, has written: “It may be that the remaining EU could have more political will to welcome Scotland as an EU member than it might have had in 2014, in the interests of stemming any perception that the EU is falling apart.”