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Scotland faces independence dilemma as Brexit looms

EDINBURGH, United Kingdom – Scotland's ruling nationalists gather for their annual conference on Thursday, October 13, with the issue of independence back on the table following Britain's vote to leave the European Union.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has vowed to explore "all options" to protect Scotland's place in the EU after Scots bucked the national trend by voting to remain in the bloc.

For many in the party, this means a second vote on independence from the rest of the United Kingdom – even though a first referendum two years ago saw voters reject independence by 55%.

On Friday, October 14, conference delegates in Glasgow will debate a motion warning that "if no viable solution to safeguard our membership as part of the UK exists, Scotland should prepare for a second independence referendum."

Toni Giugliano, an SNP member from Edinburgh, said it was "an ultimatum" to British Prime Minister Theresa May to find a way to keep Scotland in the EU, or see it seek continued membership as an independent country.

However, May was clear during her own Conservative party conference last week that Brexit was not negotiable.

"We voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom," the premier said.

"There is no opt-out from Brexit. And I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union between the four nations of our United Kingdom."

'Far-fetched ideas'

The SNP has governed the semi-autonomous Scottish Parliament for almost a decade, and many predicted the "No" vote to independence in 2014 would spell the end of the party.

But it won twice as many votes as its main opponents in both the 2015 UK general election and the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. 

It also signed up hordes of new members to campaign for Scotland – home to over five million people – to vote on June 23 to remain in the EU.

After the vote for Brexit, in which 62% of Scottish voters chose to stay in the EU, Sturgeon said a second referendum was "highly likely."

She headed straight to Brussels for talks with European leaders, where she was greeted with sympathy, but also a warning that Brussels would not get involved in the internal constitution wrangles of the United Kingdom.

European policymakers will be watching events in Glasgow with interest over the next few days for clues to where Scotland is heading next.

"Since the end of June there has been a lot of sympathy with Scotland and curiosity about what Scotland is going to do," former European Commission senior political adviser Kirsty Hughes told Agence France-Presse.

"It will be interesting to see if Nicola Sturgeon gives them a better idea of how she's planning to play this one," said Hughes, now a senior fellow at the Friends of Europe think tank.

One proposal short of independence that Sturgeon has viewed with interest is based on Greenland's exit from the EU in 1985, even while Denmark – part of the same realm – stayed in the bloc.

Under the "reverse Greenland" theory, England and Wales – which voted for Brexit – could leave the EU while Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar – which all voted to stay in – could continue as the EU member state.

This may be "fanciful", as one cabinet minister has said, but Russell Gunson, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in Scotland, said London and Edinburgh should consider "far-fetched" ideas.

"Unless we do, Scotland's options for the future will narrow significantly, and that is not what we want to see," he said. –