LONDON – Scotland’s leader delivered a shock twist to Britain’s EU exit drama on Monday, announcing that she will seek authority to hold a new independence referendum in the next two years because Britain is dragging Scotland out of the EU against its will.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would move quickly to give voters a new chance to leave the United Kingdom because Scotland was being forced into a “hard Brexit” that it didn’t support. Britons decided in a June 23 referendum to leave the EU, but Scots voted by 62 to 38 percent to remain.
Scotland must not be “taken down a path that we do not want to go down without a choice,” Sturgeon said.
The move drew a quick rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May, who said a second referendum would be hugely disruptive and was not justified because evidence shows most Scottish voters oppose a new independence vote.
May accused Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party of political “tunnel vision” and called the referendum “deeply regrettable.”
“It sets Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division,” she said.
Sturgeon spoke in Edinburgh as Britain’s Parliament was on the verge of approving a Brexit bill that will allow the U.K. to start the formal withdrawal from the EU within days. May plans to trigger the two-year exit process by the end of March.
Sturgeon said she would ask the Scottish Parliament next week to start the process of calling a referendum, to be held between the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019. She said by then, details of Britain’s post-Brexit deal with the EU would be clear and Scottish voters would be able to make “an informed choice.”
The British government must agree before a legally binding referendum can be held. It didn’t say Monday whether it would do so, but said an independence ballot “would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time.”
In a 2014 referendum, Scottish voters rejected independence by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. But Sturgeon said that the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU had brought about a “material change of circumstances.”
Sturgeon said that she had sought compromise with May’s government, but had been met with a “brick wall of intransigence.”
Sturgeon has been seeking a deal that would allow Scotland to stay in the European single market and customs union. But she said she has become convinced May is pursuing a “hard Brexit” that would leave Britain outside those arrangements, which many U.K. businesses see as crucial.
“I am not turning my back on further discussions should the U.K. government change its mind,” she said.
Sturgeon is taking a big gamble. Although the prospect of Brexit has likely boosted support for independence, polls do not indicate it has majority backing. And there is no guarantee the EU would allow an independent Scotland to remain a member.
Former European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has set out the legal view that if one part of an EU country becomes an independent state, it would have to apply for its own EU membership.
On Monday, commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said “the Barrosso doctrine … would apply, obviously” to Scotland.
Apart from Sturgeon’s SNP, Britain’s main political parties oppose independence.
“The 2014 Scottish independence referendum was billed as a once-in-a-generation event,” Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “The result was decisive and there is no appetite for another referendum.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said Scotland could find itself with “the worst of all worlds” — outside both the U.K. and the EU.
Asked whether she would resign if she lost the referendum, Sturgeon said she wasn’t planning to lose.
“Sometimes you’ve got to do what you think it right in politics,” she said. “And I think it’s right for Scotland to have a choice.”