Scotland’s Sturgeon in Brussels as EU meets without Britain

  • Reuters, Reuters, Brussels
  • Updated: Jun 29, 2016 22:44 IST
Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon is welcomed by European Parliament President Martin Schulz (not in the picture) ahead of a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. (Reuter)

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon made a dash to Brussels on Wednesday to tell the EU that Scots were intent on staying in the bloc, hours after Prime Minister David Cameron told a summit that Britain was pulling out.

“This is very much an initial meeting, a series of meetings in Brussels today, so that people understand that Scotland, unlike other parts, of the United Kingdom does not want to leave the European Union,” Sturgeon told reporters after meeting

European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

“I don’t want to underestimate the challenges that lie ahead.”

Schulz said he had “listened and learned”.

Later in the day, the pro-independence Scottish leader will meet the head of the EU executive, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and may try to probe the – hitherto flimsy – options a breakaway Scotland might have to somehow remain in the EU once the UK completes its Brexit.

Juncker’s decision to roll out the red carpet for her on the day the 27 other EU leaders held their first meeting without Britain was seen by some diplomats as an attempt to pressure London to hand in its formal notice to quit.

There were no immediate plans for Sturgeon to meet the national leaders still gathered at the summit after Cameron left overnight and European Council President Donald Tusk, the summit chairman, pointedly declined her request to meet him.

There has been a surge in sympathy around Europe for the 5.5 million Scots after nearly two-thirds of them voted in last week’s UK referendum to stay in the EU, only to see the English, ten times more numerous, vote 52% to 48% for Brexit.

But EU officials have stressed, as they did before Scots voted against independence in a referendum in 2014, that Scotland could not apply to, let alone join, the Union until it had become a sovereign state. Senior officials have dismissed the notion that Scotland could take over the empty British chair at the European Council table.

With the EU facing years of uncertainty in negotiating the withdrawal of its second-biggest economy, the Scottish factor is a complication most governments would rather avoid. Spain, wary of encouraging its own Catalan separatists, and some other states could block any Scottish accession.

One senior EU official played down Juncker’s invitation to Sturgeon, noting drily that “the president likes the regions of Europe”, comparing Scotland to federal states in Germany. But some diplomats saw Juncker’s move as a deliberate ploy to add pressure on Cameron and his successors to speed divorce talks.

“This is a way of putting pressure on London to trigger the exit clause,” a senior official in one EU government said of EU efforts to bounce London to the negotiating table while Cameron has insisted only his successor will set the clock ticking on a two-year deadline to withdrawal.

“This is a provocation by Juncker,” an EU diplomat said. “He can’t force the Brits to submit their notification so he plays these tricks.”

EU leaders were set to launch a period of reflection, culminating in a set of reform proposals to get a better grip on migration, bolstering security and creating jobs and growth.

A draft declaration of the 27, seen by Reuters, urged Britain to hand in its notice to withdraw “as soon as it is ready to do so”, and stressed there could be no negotiations of any kind before this notification has taken place.

Calling the EU a historic achievement of peace, prosperity and security, it acknowledged that “many people express dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, be it at the European or national level”.

“Europeans expect us to do better when it comes to providing security, prosperity and hope for a better future. We need to deliver on this, not least in the interest of the young,” the text said.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called the British vote a wake-up call for Europe and said: “It’s important to have this meeting of 27 because it will show the unity of the 27.”

Sturgeon has said Scotland does not want to be forced out of Europe by England. She has raised the prospect of the Scottish parliament trying to block exit legislation, and alternatively holding a new referendum on independence.

The Scottish Nationalist premier met European Parliament president Martin Schulz first in Brussels to discuss the way forward.

Cameron told European Union leaders on Tuesday that Britain’s future relations with the bloc could hinge on the EU’s willingness to rethink free movement of workers, which he blamed for the referendum “no”.

Juncker rebuffed that explanation for the vote, saying successive British leaders had participated in “Brussels bashing” and should not be surprised if their citizens believed them.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel doused any hopes that Britain might yet reverse its decision, warning against “wishful thinking”. While she persuaded fellow leaders to give London more time to hand in its formal notice to quit, Merkel said Britain could not drag out the process endlessly and made clear that a new government would not be allowed to “cherry-pick” the parts of EU membership benefits that it liked.

“Some think that Britain needs more time. I hear this, yes, but I think it strange. It’s a type of surrealism,” said Belgium’s Michel.

Cameron, who announced his intention to resign after losing the referendum partly due to concerns about immigration, told his last summit he hoped his country would maintain as tight an economic and political relationship as possible with the EU.

“Britain will be leaving the European Union but we will not be turning our back on Europe,” he told a late night news conference after a dinner at which he said many European partners voiced regret and friendship for Britain.

EU officials and diplomats said the mood was coolly polite.

The Conservative leader said he had reported with sadness on the outcome of the referendum, saying: “People recognised the economic case for staying, but there was a very great concern about movement of people and that was coupled with concern about issues of sovereignty. I think we need to think about that, Europe needs to think about that.”

In a veiled rebuke to Leave campaign leaders such as Boris Johnson, who is vying to succeed him, Cameron said Britons would have to understand they could not keep all the benefits of EU membership without the costs.

Driving home that message, French President Francois Hollande said continued access to the EU’s prized single market was dependent on accepting the so-called four freedoms of movement of goods, capital, workers and services.

“If they don’t want free movement, they won’t have access to the single market,” he said, adding that the City of London would no longer be able to act as a clearing house in euros.

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