Nicola Sturgeon told the EU on Monday that Scotland wants a close relationship — but Brussels wasn’t quite so keen on Scots projecting their hopes onto the EU.
At least, not yet.
Making her first post-Brexit trip to Brussels, Scotland’s first minister stressed she would push the U.K. government to pursue the closest ties with the EU in talks on trade and other issues.
But Sturgeon said she did not harbor much hope that Boris Johnson’s Conservative administration would take that route. Sturgeon, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), argued Scotland’s interests would be better served by leaving the U.K. and going back into the EU fold.
“I will be trying to influence the U.K. side of the negotiations, as far as I possibly can, to keep the relationship as close as possible,” Sturgeon told POLITICO after holding talks with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator with Britain.
“I believe that the case for us joining the EU will be an overwhelming one” — Nicola Sturgeon
“But I do that now with a very firm sense of realism that the path that the U.K. is taking Scotland on, in terms of its relationship with Europe, is not one that is in our medium- and long-term interests,” Sturgeon added.
Later, in a speech at the European Policy Centre think tank, she stressed the Scottish government’s commitment to the EU, noting that the country had voted strongly in favor of remaining in the bloc (even as the U.K. as a whole voted to leave).
“We are leaving the EU at a time when we have never benefited from it more, and when we have never needed it more to achieve our ambitions,” Sturgeon said.
“Ultimately, when — and I believe that it is a ‘when’ — Scotland gains independence, I believe that the case for us joining the EU will be an overwhelming one.”
However, the European Commission put something of a dampener on the first minister’s charm offensive. A spokeswoman told reporters it had raised with Belgian police the projection of a message proclaiming love for Scotland in Europe onto its Berlaymont headquarters on Brexit night, January 31.
The Commission later backtracked somewhat, saying that it is “in close contact with authorities in the event of unauthorized projections to have them stopped, on a general note. However, it was not the case for this particular incident as it was short-lived.”
The identity of those responsible for the projection is unclear. The Scottish government said it had “no involvement whatsoever.” But Sturgeon herself and Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive who is also the first minister’s husband, both tweeted the image. Critics accused them of implying that the EU was responsible for the projection. Murrell tweeted that the Commission HQ was “on message.”
The Commission made clear on Monday it had no role in the late-night light show. “We have nothing to do with that action or with the message that was projected,” spokeswoman Dana Spinant told a regular news briefing.
Spinant also stressed that although Barnier had an “open-door policy,” the EU has “just one interlocutor in relation to the future partnership with the U.K. and that is, of course, London.”
The EU Commission building in Brussels tonight (and if you look carefully you’ll see that they do appear to have left a light on for us!) 🏴❤️🇪🇺 pic.twitter.com/KMmUvJsKn4
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) January 31, 2020
Although Spinant’s words could be taken as a rebuff to Edinburgh, they also served to underscore Sturgeon’s point that the Scottish government can’t have a great deal of influence on the post-Brexit talks under the current constitutional setup.
U.K. Cabinet minister Michael Gove said last month that the British government wants “rich and deep conversations” with the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on talks with the EU but did not commit to giving them a formal role in the negotiating process.
EU officials have generally tried to stay out of the debate over Scottish independence, with some notable exceptions. Donald Tusk, the former European Council president who is now leader of the European People’s Party center-right alliance, declared this month that Brussels would be “enthusiastic” if an independent Scotland applied to join the European Union.
Sturgeon’s government is pushing for a second referendum on Scottish independence to take place later this year but Johnson has rejected that proposal.
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