AN INDEPENDENT Scotland would "automatically" become a member of the European Union, the Deputy First Minister maintained yesterday.
Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that both political and legal opinion supported the SNP government's position that there would be no need to renegotiate EU membership after Scotland broke away from the UK.
But opposition MSPs last night warned that Ms Sturgeon's assertion "did not hold water" as it contradicted the recently expressed view of one of Europe's most senior officials.
The new dispute over membership of the EU was prompted by evidence Ms Sturgeon gave to Holyrood's Europe and external relations committee. Ms Sturgeon told MSPs on the committee: "It is the very clear view of the SNP and of the Government that Scotland would automatically be a member of the European Union upon independence.
"There is very clear legal opinion that backs up that position. I don't think the legal position, therefore, is in any doubt."
She said that the political position was "clearer still". As the EU was expanding, "the idea that Scotland would somehow be cast out is incredible and does not bear any sensible scrutiny".
Asked whether an independent Scotland would be required to renegotiate the terms of membership, Ms Sturgeon replied: "No."
Ms Sturgeon said that under international "law of successor states", Scotland "would assume the rights and responsibilities of the UK and that would include automatic membership of the European Union and the overwhelming weight of legal opinion backs up that view".
She said that she could not find credible the argument that the EU would not "enthusiastically" want to have "oil rich" Scotland as a member.
Ms Sturgeon's claims were last night attacked by Labour, which cited a recent interview given by Joe Borg, the EU fisheries commissioner, to The Scotsman.
In September, Mr Borg stated unequivocally that in his view, an independent Scotland would remain outside the EU until it had completed the formal application process - in the same way as eastern European states have done in recent years.
He added: "If we were to assume that Scotland gained independence and therefore is eligible as a new member state for the European Union, I would see that, legally speaking, the continuation of the membership would remain with the rest of the UK, less Scotland.
"And, therefore, Scotland, as a newly independent state, would have to apply for membership."
Jackie Baillie, Labour's shadow minister for parliamentary business, said: "The SNP's assumption that Scotland would immediately get a place at the European table just doesn't hold any water.
"The EU's fisheries commissioner said earlier this year that Scotland would be forced to apply and that means there's no presumption of membership being granted.
"It's about time the SNP were honest enough to admit that our place in Europe is in jeopardy if Scotland is wrenched out of the United Kingdom."
The Scottish Government was last night unable to supply details of the legal advice that Ms Sturgeon said she had on the issue of EU membership.
However, in the past the SNP has cited the late Robin Cook who, the party claims, said when he was foreign secretary that an independent Scotland would remain a member of the EU.
A spokesman for the EU said: "We do not comment on hypothetical situations."
AN UNPRECEDENTED SITUATION
THERE is no precedent of a member state breaking up, which means the issue of an independent Scotland's position within the EU is under speculation.
Greenland, a dependency of Denmark, left voluntarily in 1985 over a dispute about fishing rights. International case law favours the notion that the larger entity in a political break-up is usually designated the inheritor of all treaty obligations. This would therefore leave Scottish ministers having to negotiate not just membership of the EU, but of the United Nations and the WTO. However, many argue it would not benefit the EU to fracture borders, at a time when it is engaged in enlargement.