Sturgeon in setback ahead of EU charm offensive as member states refuse to offer public backing

NICOLA Sturgeon has suffered an early setback in her bid win international backing for her drive to preserve Scotland's EU status, after she was snubbed by Donald Tusk and European Governments refused to commit to meetings with SNP ministers.

The First Minister will today embark on an unprecedented overseas charm offensive, flying to Brussels for talks with senior figures in the European Parliament as she seeks to secure a future in the EU after Scotland's voters backed membership in last week's referendum but were outnumbered UK wide. She also intends to bypass the UK Government by opening an immediate, direct dialogue with other EU member states.

However, in a blow to Ms Sturgeon's bid to secure influential allies ahead of a "highly likely" independence referendum that would see her ask voters to choose the EU over the UK, a string of overseas administrations indicated that they believe Scotland's EU status remains an internal issue for the UK, with only Slovakia emerging as a surprise potential ally.

Last night it also emerged that that Donald Tusk, the influential President of the European Council, turned down a request to meet with Ms Sturgeon today, with his spokesman saying it was "not appropriate" given the situation in the UK. She will not meet with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who the Scottish Government said was too busy.

It leaves the SNP leader in a fight to avoid a series of embarrassing snubs as the Scottish Government adopts a position that clashes with that of the crisis-hit UK Government, which officially maintains control of foreign affairs.

Zoltán Kovács, a spokesman for the Hungarian Government, echoed other EU nations when he dismissed questions over Scotland's EU status as "theoretical" and "premature" for the time being.

Asked whether his Government would hold talks with the SNP administration or support an independent Scotland remaining in the EU, he said: "Though the member states of the United Kingdom are entitled to play under a "national" entitlement at say the European Championships or the World Cup in football, in European politics the political unit we face and negotiate with is the United Kingdom.

"We strongly believe in and stand for the right of all Europeans for national self-determination – but as far as there’s no legally binding decision about the independence of Scotland on behalf of the Scottish people… questions remain theoretical and premature."

Ms Sturgeon, who yesterday received the backing of Holyrood to embark on discussions with "the EU institutions and member states to explore options for protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU", said she had had a "very constructive" discussion with the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday.

She said her Government was "directly in touch" with other member states, as well as the European Commission and Parliament. Fiona Hyslop, the external affairs secretary, has met ambassadors of France, Germany and Slovakia. Ms Sturgeon will today meet with Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, an MEP who has said there is "no big obstacle" to an independent Scotland joining the EU before Brexit.

However, European administrations were reticent when asked by The Herald whether they supported Scotland in its bid to hang on to EU status. A spokeswoman for the Irish Government said it enjoyed "excellent relations" with Scotland, but refused to intervene in the current row, maintaining the impartial stance it adopted ahead of the independence referendum.

The German Government said the status of Scotland was an "internal" British issue and declined to comment further when asked whether it would engage directly with the Scottish Government.

Denmark said that its minister for foreign affairs "will not intervene in the internal UK discussions following the referendum last week". An Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said she did not wish to engage in "speculation" while the Government of the Czech Republic said it was "premature to address the question of independent Scotland and its relation to the EU."

A spokesman added: "For now it is an internal matter of the United Kingdom and it is up to the British government and Scotland to decide on their future."

In more encouraging news for the First Minister, Peter Stano, spokesman for the Slovakian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, opened the door to potential future bi-lateral talks with Scotland.

Mr Stano said: "It is important to be inclusive in the upcoming processes and to listen to what each relevant stakeholder has to say. The Scottish people spoke clearly and we appreciate Scottish pro-EU attitude.

"We now need to proceed step by step. In this respect we welcome active and responsible engagement of the Scottish government and commend the readiness of the British Government to take Scottish views on board."

Meanwhile, SNP MEP Alyn Smith secured a rare standing ovation on the floor of the European Parliament following a passionate appeal for fellow members not to "let Scotland down" after more than 60 per cent voted overwhelmingly in favour of EU membership last week, in contrast to the UK-wide Leave victory.

A spokesman for the First Minister said: "We look forward to a range of meetings and discussions with those from the EU institutions and from individual member states – and it is already very clear that there is a great deal of goodwill towards Scotland from our friends and neighbours across Europe."



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