By John Chalmers and Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Scotland is already taking steps to hold a referendum on independence and believes it is a matter of when rather than if the country separates from the rest of Britain, Scotland’s First Minister said on Monday.
“We should agree a process between ourselves and the UK government for a referendum in line with the clear mandate given by the people of Scotland,” Nicola Sturgeon told a news conference in Brussels on her first foreign trip since Britain left the European Union.
“We are taking in Scotland the steps required to ensure that a referendum can be held that is legal and legitimate so the result can be accepted and agreed both at home and internationally,” she continued, adding that one such step was testing the potential question to put to voters.
Sturgeon pointed to the British election in December, in which her Scottish National Party had won 80% of seats in Scotland on an anti-Brexit and pro-independence platform, as a clear sign that Scottish people did not see a future shared with the rest of Britain.
“If we continue to see support for independence rise, as we have been doing, if we continue to see demand for that choice continue to grow, ultimately you cannot stand in the way of that clear democratic choice,” she said.
The Scottish leader said Scotland needed to have a referendum before declaring independence.
The latest opinion polls have seen support for independence nudging over the 50% mark.
In a referendum in 2014, Scots voted by 55% to stay in the United Kingdom. But independence supporters say Britain’s departure from the EU, which most Scots voted against in the 2016 Brexit referendum, means the situation has changed.
Sturgeon said it was not clear if Scotland could hold a referendum without acceptance by the British government, which so far refuses to contemplate another independence ballot.
“I’m not ruling out that at some point, if the impasse continues, it may have to be tested. But putting things in the hands of courts is always uncertain in terms of the outcome, but actually what we should be doing is seeking agreement,” Sturgeon said.
The Spanish region of Catalonia unilaterally declared independence in October 2017 following a referendum deemed illegal by courts, prompting Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades.
Sturgeon said Prime Boris Johnson’s pre-Brexit promises to the fishing industry – that Britain could take back control of its waters and still have access to the EU market on which it depends heavily – would be “very difficult” to deliver.
Fishing rights is one of the thorniest issues facing British and EU negotiators who face a race against time to clinch a deal on their future relationship, including on trade, before the end of a transition period on Dec. 31, 2020.
Sturgeon cited, as an example, a warning by Scottish salmon producers that if London refuses to align with EU regulations, they could face a burden of up to 8.7 million pounds ($11.3 million) providing export certificates for sales to the EU.
(Editing by Francesco Guarascio and Angus MacSwan)