Nicola Sturgeon has said the Scottish Government would work to “mitigate” any requirements for border checks with England if an independent Scotland was to join the European Union at some point in the future.
The First Minister visited Brussels on Monday to deliver an address to the European Policy Centre (EPC), where she pledged that Scotland would continue to maintain close links with the EU despite Brexit.
In a move which could ensure a future Scottish state’s smooth entry into the bloc of nations, the SNP leader said Scotland would “keep pace” with EU regulatory standards in devolved areas.
But pro-Union campaigners said an independent Scotland risked creating a hard border with England if the rest of the UK remained outside of the UK.
In a Q&A session after her speech, Ms Sturgeon was asked about the issue of a border being created between Scotland and England in the event of independence.
She said: “It’s not independence that threatens borders - it’s Brexit that does that, and it’s the approach to Brexit that is being taken.
“(It’s) one of the reasons that I’ll continue to argue for the relationship to be as close as possible. But, obviously, when we see where the UK/EU relationship ends up, then the Scottish Government can work out how we can mitigate that in a Scottish sense.”
In her speech, the First Minister argued that Scotland’s task now that membership of the EU had ended was to find a voice as an independent nation which could take its place on the world stage.
Ms Sturgeon added Holyrood would look to use devolved powers to ensure a close relationship with the bloc in the future.
The First Minister told the assembled crowd: “We will try to influence negotiations in a way which benefits Scotland, the UK and the EU.
“In particular, we will stress the value of having as close a trading relationship with the EU as possible.”
The comments come after a speech by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in which he said the UK would “prosper mightily” from changing statutory standards - which the EU has said could limit access to the market.
Ms Sturgeon said: “The right to diverge will come at a cost - in my view a cost that is too heavy.
“As things stand, there is a danger that the UK will significantly reduce our access to the single market - something which will harm manufacturers and service industries across the country - because it wants the freedom to lower standards relating to health, safety, the environment and workers’ rights.
“The Scottish Government will argue against that approach. We largely support the idea of a level playing field - which removes the possibility of the UK adopting lower standards than the EU.
“Now, on past evidence, I must confess that I am not overly optimistic about our chances of success.”
The First Minister also said the Scottish Government would use available powers to “keep pace with EU regulations”.
She added: “It is a way in which we can protect the health and well-being of people in Scotland, maintain the international reputation of businesses in Scotland and make it easier, when the time comes, as I believe it will, for Scotland to return to the EU.”
The SNP leader went on to state her party would continue to push for Scotland to become an independent country, which would hope to rejoin the EU in the future.
Ms Sturgeon also said Scotland has “never needed the EU more”.
In her speech, she said: “We are leaving the European Union, imperfect that it undoubtedly is, at a time when we have never benefited from it more.
“And we are also leaving it - in my view - at a time when we have never needed it more.
“In an age when intolerance and bigotry seems to be on the rise, the values of the EU - values of democracy, equality, solidarity, the rule of law and respect for human rights - are more important than ever.”
In response to Ms Sturgeon’s speech, Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “Rather than mitigate border checks, we can avoid them entirely by remaining in the UK.
“The reality is that Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to leave our largest trading partner and join the EU would risk a hard border.
“When 60 per cent of our trade is with the rest of the UK, compared to only 19 per cent with the entire EU, border checks would be devastating for our economy and jobs.
“Nicola Sturgeon’s narrow nationalism would also place a barrier between friends, families and neighbours.
“The only way to avoid a hard border and save the pound is to remain in the UK.”