EU referendum: Brussels delighted as Nicola Sturgeon warns of second independence vote in event of UK exit

Ms Sturgeon warns of a 'strong backlash' and a potential 'unstoppable' push for another referendum

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Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon brought her brand of Caledonian confidence to Brussels – warning that Scots could demand a second independence referendum if the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

Exuding equal measures of charm and menace, Ms Sturgeon predicted there would be a “strong backlash” if the referendum resulted in Scotland being taken out of the EU despite voting as a nation to stay in.

“Bluntly, I believe the groundswell of anger among ordinary people in Scotland in these circumstances could produce a clamour for another independence referendum which may well be unstoppable,” she said.

In her speech, Ms Sturgeon demanded that the referendum bill include a ‘double lock’ mechanism, so that exit from the EU would only be possible if all four nations of the UK agree to it.

Nicola Sturgeon speak in Brussels

“If the UK is a family of nations, then nobody should dictate to the others,” she said. “My message is: you don’t want to create the conditions for another independence referendum. I am putting forward the mechanism to stop that happening.”

Ms Sturgeon’s fluid and casual manner in her address to officials and lobbyists at the European Policy Centre (EPC) think tank represented a stark contrast with the cautious, jargon-heavy, and robotic speeches typical of EU bureaucrats.

Even her habit of responding to questioners by their first names ran against the grain of Brussels formalities.

The First Minister’s speech came less than a week after David Cameron made a tour of European capitals to kick off a debate he hopes will end in EU reforms handing more powers back to Britain.

On the question of EU reform, Ms Sturgeon said she would work with the Prime Minister  “where there is overlap between the UK Government’s ideas and our own”. In particular, she backed Mr Cameron’s calls to ease rules on businesses and give national governments more leeway in areas like public health.

“In some areas, that means that the EU should leave member states with the autonomy to tackle pressing problems,” she said, pointing to the Scottish Parliament’s vote to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol, and Scotland’s suggested changed to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.

But the First Minister issued a fierce defence of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and criticised the Conservative government’s proposals to limit migration.

She said EU membership was vital to the Scottish economy and society, with more than 300,000 jobs associated with exports to the EU, and around 171,000 people from the EU currently living and working in Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon’s message was greeted with cautious support by her audience, with almost all the speakers welcoming her vociferous belief on the EU’s benefits, even if she also represents the fragmentation and separatism that Brussels tries to avoid.

The EPC’s chief executive Fabian Zuleeg said Ms Sturgeon had made a clear mark with her speech, connecting with her audience as a rare British politician prepared to make an unashamedly pro-European case.

“She’s an impressive speaker, not afraid to tackle controversial issues,” Mr Zuleeg said.