Nicola Sturgeon’s proposals for a vote on Scottish independence within weeks of a Brexit deal have been thrown into doubt by the EU’s decision to delay a trade deal.
The first minister has insisted Scotland must be given a vote on staying in the UK or independence after the terms of Brexit and once the terms of the UK’s new free trade deal with the EU are clear and agreed by both sides.
Sturgeon wrote to the prime minister, Theresa May, on Friday formally requesting talks on setting up that referendum after the Scottish parliament endorsed her call for a vote between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.
She cited that vote and May’s indication in their private talks on Monday that the prime minister wanted the trade and Brexit deals finalised by March 2019.
Sturgeon told May in her letter there was “no rational case” for rejecting referendum talks before then.
But the EU’s negotiation guidelines, published by European council president Donald Tusk on Friday morning, have rejected that timetable.
It states that a final trade deal can only be negotiated and concluded after the UK has left the EU.
It also warns both sides will need transitional and “bridging” arrangements where EU regulations would still have to apply to the UK before the trade deal will be signed, implying it could take considerably longer to complete those talks.
In a blow to both May and Sturgeon, the EU said initial talks to agree an overall framework for that trade deal would start only in the final stages of the Brexit negotiations.
It stated: “Based on the union’s interests, the European council stands ready to initiate work towards such an agreement, to be finalised and concluded once the United Kingdom is no longer a member state.”
Sturgeon’s letter to May was issued several hours after Tusk published the EU’s guidelines, and in contrast to her combative speech earlier this month demanding the referendum powers, her letter to signaled she was prepared to relax her deadline.
Sturgeon told May she would delay staging it if the Brexit timetable slipped or if more time was needed to make the terms of Brexit clear.
“If the timetable you have set out changes, we will require to consider the implications for the timing of a referendum,” Sturgeon wrote.
“However, it seems reasonable at this stage to work on the basis of your stated timetable.
“We are also in agreement that – unlike the EU referendum – the choice must be an informed one.
That means that both the terms of Brexit and the implications and opportunities of independence must be clear in advance of the referendum.”
Sturgeon insisted the Scottish government would play “a full and constructive role in securing” the best possible Brexit deal for the UK, even though Scottish voters did not vote last June to leave the EU.
That risked contradicting warnings from her spokesman on Thursday that Sturgeon could refuse to support the Brexit legislation if she believed Westminster was failing to pass on the right EU powers to Holyrood.
Despite offering to delay the vote if necessary, Sturgeon insisted that talks on passing those powers to Scotland under a so-called section 30 order should start as soon as possible.
It should be “a relatively straightforward process” given both governments had gone through it five years ago to set up the 2014 referendum.
Citing the Holyrood vote on Tuesday and her manifesto pledge to stage a referendum if the UK left the EU against Scotland’s will, Sturgeon told May she now had a clear mandate to pursue a referendum based on Scottish traditions of “popular sovereignty”.
Downing Street confirmed May would not agree to those talks before Brexit.
It would be unfair to the people of Scotland to ask them to make a crucial decision without the necessary information about our future relationship with Europe, or what an independent Scotland would look like,” a spokesman said.
Predicting May would again refuse to agree, Sturgeon warned she would set out a new strategy to secure that referendum after the Easter holidays – despite the UK government’s opposition.
“It is my firm view that the mandate of the Scottish parliament must be respected and progressed.
The question is not if, but how,” Sturgeon wrote.
However, repeated opinion polls show only about 35% of voters agree with her claim a referendum before Brexit is necessary.
Support for independence is static at about 45%, with some polls suggesting it is nearer 50%.
In a short video broadcast on the Scottish government’s Twitter feed, the first minister took a conciliatory tone by urging yes and no voters to agree there was a clear moral case for the referendum powers to be handed to Holyrood, even if they did not back independence.
Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, said Sturgeon’s quest for the referendum would dismay voters and was not based on popular sovereignty.
“There is absolutely no evidence that another divisive referendum is the will of the people of Scotland,” she said.
“Holding another referendum on leaving the UK is the wrong thing to do for Scotland’s economy, especially when there is so much economic uncertainty from the Tories’ reckless plans for a hard Brexit.”