A second referendum on Scottish independence could be held as early as next year, Nicola Sturgeon has suggested.
The First Minister said Scotland was in a “very, very strong position” to secure a favourable outcome in negotiations on Britain’s exit from the European Union and could hold a veto on any deal struck by Theresa May’s government.
But Ms Sturgeon threatened to stage a second referendum on independence if Scotland is taken out of the EU, following the 2014 vote to remain part of the UK. She suggested a referendum could take place within months of the formal Brexit being launched.
In a series of TV interviews yesterday, Ms Sturgeon did not rule out another vote in 2017 if the Scottish Government was “not on board” with negotiations when Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the formal mechanism for leaving the EU – is triggered.
She said: “At that point that [a second referendum] would be an option and a decision that I would have to consider, if we had found it impossible to defend Scotland’s interests within the UK.”
Ms Sturgeon claimed the new Prime Minister had strengthened Scotland’s hand by tying the activation of Article 50 to getting approval for “a UK-wide approach” to negotiations with the EU.
Last week Ms May used the first major engagement of her premiership to visit Edinburgh for talks with the First Minister about Brexit, having earlier made the preservation of the “precious, precious Union” her top priority.
The Prime Minister pledged to “listen to options” from the Scottish Government, and added after the meeting at Bute House: “I won’t be triggering Article 50 until I think that we have a UK approach and objectives for negotiations. I think it is important that we establish that before we trigger Article 50.”
Ms May’s comments have been interpreted by some as offering the Scottish Government a veto on triggering Article 50.
Ms Sturgeon said yesterday: “Certainly, from what she said after the meeting, I think that puts Scotland now in a very, very strong position and puts me in a strong position.”
The First Minister also reiterated her belief that a separate deal could be done that allowed Scotland to retain its membership of the bloc from within the UK.
She said: “We’re in uncharted territory and when you’re in uncharted territory with effectively a blank sheet of paper in front of you then you have an opportunity to try to think things that might have previously been unthinkable and shape the future.”
Ms Sturgeon claimed the mood in Brussels had changed since 2014, when EU leaders were unfriendly towards the Scottish Government’s independence bid, and suggested there was support for Scotland’s continued membership of the EU.
She said: “What I encountered in Brussels was a warmth, an openness, a great sympathy to the position that Scotland finds itself in. Things have changed fundamentally.”
Ms Sturgeon’s comments could anger anti-EU MPs who question Ms May’s commitment to leaving the bloc, despite the Prime Minister’s previous assurance that “Brexit means Brexit”.
Leave campaigner and Labour MP Gisela Stuart said she was “worried” that a second referendum could be called on the UK’s exit deal, putting Brexit at risk.
Meanwhile, David Davis, the cabinet secretary in charge of Brexit negotiations, dismissed the idea that Scotland could negotiate a separate deal with the EU to preserve its membership while staying in the UK.
“I don’t think that works,” he said. “One of our really challenging issues to deal with will be the internal border we have with southern Ireland, and we are not going to go about creating other internal borders inside the United Kingdom.”
Mr Davis said the UK government “will try as best we can” to address Scottish concerns about the impact of Brexit, but added: “They can’t have a veto because there are 17.5 million people who have given us a mandate; they have told us what to do, we can’t disobey it – but what we can do is to try to do what we can to minimise any disruption or turbulence or problems.”
Mr Davis also suggested that EU citizens who arrive in the UK between last month’s referendum and the date the country exits the EU could lose their right to live and work here.
He said he was in favour of offering existing EU citizens in the UK a “generous settlement” as part of Brexit negotiations, but warned that a cut-off date could be imposed to stop migrants arriving from the continent “in a big rush to try to grab a set of advantages”.
Mr Davis said the status of EU citizens would need to be negotiated alongside that of British residents in EU countries.
The SNP’s Europe spokesman, Stephen Gethins, said: “It is shameful that instead of trying to offer any sort of reassurance for EU nationals living and working in the UK, the Tories are content to use EU nationals as bargaining chips in their Brexit negotiations.
“David Davis’s comments lay bare the priorities of Theresa May’s ‘nasty party’ Cabinet and once again show how unprepared the Leave side and the UK government were for the possibility of a Brexit vote.”