Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon got a “sympathetic” hearing in Brussels on Wednesday as she pleaded her case for Scots to stay in the EU, showing how Britain’s vote to leave the bloc could splinter the United Kingdom.
But she drew a rebuff from Spain and a mixed response from European officials.
EU leaders met for the first time without Britain. Outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron flew home after briefing his 27 peers on Tuesday evening on last week’s referendum defeat.
Pro-independence leader Sturgeon has said that Scotland, where voters backed staying in the EU by a near 2-1 majority, must not be dragged out of the EU against its will.
She wants to negotiate directly with Brussels to protect the membership rights of Scots – and is open to a new independence referendum if that is the only way to keep Scotland in the bloc.
But Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, struggling to prevent the autonomous region of Catalonia from breaking away, said Madrid would oppose any EU negotiation with Scotland.
“If the United Kingdom leaves, Scotland leaves,” he said after the first meeting of the 27 EU partners without Britain.
Sturgeon, pointedly referring to Rajoy as “acting” premier following the unclear outcome of Sunday’s Spanish election, said she was not at all surprised to hear such “starting positions” from Madrid and she was well aware of the difficulties.
“We are very early in this process,” she told reporters, stressing that her priority was to have Scotland’s voice heard. “I have been heartened today to hear a willingness to listen.”
A spokesman for Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission chief who irked some European diplomats by meeting Sturgeon at such a critical time in EU relations with London, stressed that he had listened but would not interfere in British domestic politics.