LONDON – Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon announced Monday she will seek a new referendum on independence in a bold move of defiance even as British leaders forge ahead toward a full break from the European Union.
The bombshell decision adds to the stakes as Britain prepares to trigger the start of two years of negotiations with the European Union to hammer out the terms of its departure.
It also raised the possible head-spinning scenario of British leaders finalizing their E.U. split while also figuring out how to handle their own internal breakup with Scotland, which then would likely ask Brussels for E.U. membership as Europe’s newest nation.
Voters across the United Kingdom – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted 52 to 48 percent to leave the European Union last June. But a substantial majority of Scots – 62 percent – voted to remain.
Sturgeon, who holds the title of first minister in Scotland, said she will push for an authorization from the Scottish Parliament next week to proceed with the vote. With Britain due to exit the European Union in March 2019, she said she would like to hold the referendum in the autumn of 2018 or spring of 2019.
A Downing Street spokesman slammed Sturgeon’s move as “divisive,” but did not rule out the idea of a second referendum.
Scottish independence advocates lost a vote in September 2014 by a margin of 55 to 45 percent. At the time, pro-independence leaders said the vote was a “once-in-a-generation” choice.
But Sturgeon said Monday that Britain’s E.U. exit against Scottish wishes represents a “change in material circumstances” that justifies a second vote. The referendum, she said, will give Scottish voters the option “to follow the U.K. to a hard Brexit – or to become an independent country.”
“Scotland’s future will be decided not just by me, the Scottish government or the [Scottish National Party],” she said. “It will be decided by the people of Scotland. It will be Scotland’s choice. And I trust the people to make that choice.”
If Scotland leaves the United Kingdom and wants to rejoin the European Union, authorities in Brussels have said it would need to apply as an independent country. Normally that is a years-long process, and it is not clear whether Scotland would be given an accelerated path.
Although Sturgeon has hinted for months that she would push for another vote, the announcement caught many in Britain by surprise.
It comes as speculation mounts that British Prime Minister Theresa May will soon invoke Article 50, the never-before-used mechanism for leaving the 28-nation bloc.
May has said she will take that step before the end of March. But multiple British media outlets have reported that it could come Tuesday, assuming Parliament clears various procedural hurdles as expected on Monday.
Sturgeon said she was forced to seek a new referendum after months of negotiations with the British government aimed at softening the impact of Brexit – talks that she said have failed.
“Our efforts at compromise have instead been met with a brick wall of intransigence,” she said.
May has said she is seeking a clean break from the European Union that would leave the country outside both the European single market and its customs union.
In a statement after Sturgeon’s speech, a Downing Street spokesman argued against Scottish independence but, crucially, did not reject outright the idea of another vote. Constitutional scholars say that Scotland will need the agreement of British authorities if it wishes to proceed with the referendum.
“The evidence clearly shows that a majority of people in Scotland do not want a second independence referendum,” said the spokesman, who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity. “Another referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time.”
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, said Scottish members of his party would oppose the proposal for a second referendum in the Scottish Parliament.
But he said that if the measure passes, Labour would “not block that democratic decision.”
Polls suggest it is not clear which way Scottish voters will swing if they are given another choice. Surveys show support for independence hovering just at or below 50 percent.
Sturgeon’s announcement immediately escalates the importance of the Brexit talks – putting not only the shape of Britain’s new relationship with the European Union on the line, but its own internal union as well.
“Brexit now clearly raises questions not only about the future of the U.K., but whether the U.K. has a future,” said Andrew Blick, a constitutional expert at King’s College London. “With parallel uncertainties involving Northern Ireland, the union faces an unprecedented twin challenge to its future composition.”
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