MSPs give Nicola Sturgeon mandate to hold direct EU talks

Nicola Sturgeon today embarks on a diplomatic mission to Brussels with the backing of the Scottish Parliament in an attempt to maintain Scotland's place in the European Union.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has won a vote to hold direct talks with the EU. Picture: PA

An overwhelming majority of MSPs last night backed the First Minister’s efforts ahead of her meetings with European Parliament president Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgium prime minister who leads the Liberal Group at ­Brussels.

But Ms Sturgeon’s attempts to enter immediate discussions with Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, failed when he declined her request for a meeting.

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“Given the situation in the UK he feels it is not appropriate, but he is grateful for the invitation,” said a spokesman for the president of the body which determines the political direction of the EU.

Mr Tusk’s spokesman refused to comment on whether they would meet in the future.

Last night Ms Sturgeon’s spokesman said today’s trip was only the first of several that will be undertaken by the First Minister. He added he was “not surprised” that Mr Tusk was unavailable, given that he was involved in emergency talks about Britain’s exit from the EU over the next couple of days.

The First Minister’s spokesman added that Ms Sturgeon was encouraged that Mr Verhofstadt had been appointed one of the European Parliament’s three Brexit negotiators. Mr Verhofstadt is well-disposed to the idea of an independent Scotland being part of the EU.

Last night Ms Sturgeon secured cross-party support at Holyrood for unilateral discussions before she headed to Brussels.

MSPs gave their support following an emergency debate held to respond to the UK’s vote for Brexit, which was achieved despite 62 per cent of Scots voting to stay.

In a statement to Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon repeated her intention to propose a second independence referendum if the Scottish Government concludes it is “the best or only way to protect Scotland’s place in the EU”.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens backed her motion asking for a mandate for talks with the UK government, other devolved administrations, EU institutions and member states, which was passed by 92 votes to zero.

The Conservatives abstained after their attempt to amend it failed.

Speaking in the Holyrood chamber, Ms Sturgeon said she was “determined that Scotland’s voice will be heard”.

She also announced that a Standing Council of experts to advise on European matters has been set up under the chairmanship of Anton Muscatelli, the principal of Glasgow University.

She has said the Scottish Government will draw up legislation for a second referendum on independence to allow for the option of it being held within the timeframe of UK negotiations on leaving the EU.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: “I want to be clear to parliament that whilst I believe that independence is the best option for Scotland, it is not my starting point in these discussions.

“My starting point is to protect our relationship with the EU.”

She continued: “However, let me clear about this. If the government does conclude that the best or only way to protect Scotland’s place in the EU is through a referendum on independence we will return to parliament with that judgment and it will then, at that time, be for parliament to decide.”

In an attempt to get the Conservatives to back her motion, Ms Sturgeon claimed she was “emphatically not asking parliament to endorse” independence.

She said: “A vote for this motion is not a vote for a referendum on independence.”

But Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was concerned that Ms Sturgeon was agitating for a second Scottish independence referendum.

Ms Davidson said: “If the Scottish Government wants to explore Scotland’s options within the United Kingdom, then we can support her in that.

“However, it is after this stage that we have concerns with the Scottish Government’s approach in the days since the result.

“I cannot ignore the fact that, within hours of the vote becoming clear on Friday morning, the Scottish Government has pushed questions of independence front and centre.”

She added: “I’ve heard the First Minister telling us that this motion today is nothing to do with independence.

“And yet, in the days since the result last week, it feels to many people across Scotland that the SNP is talking about nothing but independence, and has done so again today.”

Ms Davidson was attacked by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who accused the Tories of putting the future of the UK “in danger at every turn”.

She said: “It’s high time they shouldered responsibility for that.

“All options for protecting Scotland’s place in the single market must be explored.”