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Scottish leader to seek second independence referendum

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 th...

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Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon makes a speech at SSE's new Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre, in Pitlochry, Scotland, Britain, February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

 

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.

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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.

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a stinging response, accusing Sturgeon of "playing politics with the future of our country."

"The tunnel vision that the [Scottish National Party] has shown today is deeply regrettable," May told broadcasters. "It sets Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division, creating huge uncertainty.

But, crucially, May did not threaten to block another vote, a power that British authorities technically possess.

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.

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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 the British prime minister 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.

May, in her statement after Sturgeon's speech, said she would "negotiate an agreement that is going to work for the whole of the United Kingdom and that includes the Scottish people." She also cited polls to argue that "the majority of the Scottish people, do not want a second independence referendum.

May's fellow Conservatives said they would vote against the bill authorizing a referendum in the Scottish Parliament. So did the Labour Party. But with the Green Party backing the vote, Sturgeon's Scottish National Party appeared to have the votes it needed to push through the legislation.

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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."

Thomas Lundberg, a political scientist at the University of Glasgow, said Sturgeon may be calculating that the British government will be so preoccupied with negotiating its way out of the European Union that it won't be able to devote itself to defending the three-century-old union that bound Scotland to England.

"That may be what the Scottish government is thinking: Take advantage of maximum chaos," Lundberg said.

Sturgeon will have much on the line if Scotland goes to vote.

Many analysts had expected she would wait until surveys showed a clear majority in favor of independence before pushing for a second vote. By committing to it now, she's gambling that the final shape of a Brexit deal will be toxic enough to Scots that they will take the breakaway path they rejected in 2014.

But she will also have factors weighing against her, including a sharp drop in oil prices that has hurt the Scottish economy. Then there is the tricky question of how the border between Scotland and England will function - especially if it's a dividing line between one country within the European Union and another outside.

"This is a big, big risk," Lundberg said. "She must realize that if she gets this wrong, it not only will be the end of her political career, it really will be another generation before there's another chance at independence."

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Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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