Seeking to exploit the Tory rebellion at Westminster over EU membership, the First Minister launched a stinging attack on the Conservatives’ pledge to hold an “in or out” referendum on the issue.
Marking what he hopes will be a turning point in the independence campaign, Mr Salmond branded Prime Minister David Cameron as “ridiculous”, saying warnings by pro-UK figures about Scotland’s status as an EU member after independence had been exposed as “absurd”.
Speaking as the Tories revealed their EU referendum question, the First Minister said the unionist case had been undermined now the UK’s own future within the 27-member state was up for grabs.
If people voted Yes to independence next year, he said, Scotland would remain within the EU, leaving the rest of the UK to decide for itself.
However, the complexities of the situation were underlined by one leading academic who warned last night that an independent Scotland which kept the pound would not be able to keep “a foot in both camps” if the UK did leave the EU.
Professor Michael Keating, a leading political scientist, said Edinburgh would be faced with the choice of leaving the EU along with the UK in order to keep the pound, or adopting the euro in order to remain within the EU.
Mr Salmond’s broadside came as SNP figures accused the Conservative-led government of pursuing an agenda designed solely to head off the Ukip challenge to Tory seats in England, with no relevance to Scotland.
Commenting after Mr Cameron had published a draft bill in response to pressure from eurosceptic back-benchers, Mr Salmond said: “The UK government and the rest of the No campaign began the debate on Scotland’s referendum by claiming independence would threaten Scotland’s place in Europe.
“But the Prime Minister’s actions have made that claim look absurd. The Prime Minister should reflect that those whom the gods seek to destroy, they first render ridiculous.”
He went on: “He has been bounced into this move by the rising tide of support south of the border for Ukip – who are almost a complete irrelevance in Scotland.”
Turning to the independence debate, he said that the “real uncertainty on Scotland’s future in Europe is coming from Westminster”. He added: “The only way to avoid that uncertainty is a Yes vote in next year’s referendum.”
Mr Salmond, who does not support a referendum on EU membership in Scotland, said his own course of action after independence would be to “seek reform” from within.
He added: “The alternative is Scotland being dragged to the EU exit door against our will as Westminster descends into a right-wing debating society that threatens jobs and prosperity in the real world.”
Recent polls have suggested that just over a half of Scots would vote to stay in the EU, compared to a third who say they would vote to leave. In England, a poll found that half would vote to leave, compared with around 42 per cent who said they would stay in.
Mr Salmond has said he would negotiate membership of the EU within the UK after a Yes vote, and then become a new member of the EU by 2016. At the same time, he says, Scotland would keep the pound within a new “sterling zone”.
But if the UK decided then to quit the EU, analysts said last night there would be major “complications”.
Prof Keating, a leading analyst of the EU and Scottish independence, said: “Scotland would have to decide whether it was going to be part of the British system or part of the European system because they are developing their own set of financial regulations. It would be difficult to have a foot in both camps.
“If the UK is outside the EU, then it gets pretty difficult. I can’t see Scotland sharing a currency with a non- member state of the EU. There would be all manner of problems with financial regulations.”
He said that if the UK decided to stay in, the question for Scotland would be whether the terms of the UK’s membership would be acceptable to Scotland.
However, asked whether a UK exit from the EU would undermine the SNP’s proposed “sterling zone”, a spokesman for the Scottish Government insisted it would not. “You have fiscal freedom. It’s not something that would change. No is the answer,” he said.
Pro-UK figures in Scotland last night criticised the Conservative “obsession” with an EU referendum in the run up to the independence vote.
Among them, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said: “The Tories have taken leave of their senses. They could take a bit of their own advice because when they say this long period leading up to a referendum creates uncertainty, that applies to both referendums.”
But Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson backed Mr Cameron’s plan. “I welcome the Prime Minister’s promise to offer people a vote on whether to stay in the EU on better terms than we have now,” she said.
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