THE European Union must be ready to accept new member states “by 2030”, the president of the European Council has said.

The announcement from Charles Michel, the former Belgian prime minister who heads up the council, must spark “serious” discussion in Scotland, according to foreign policy expert Kirsty Hughes.

Michel said in a speech delivered in Slovenia on Monday: “Now enlargement is no longer a dream. It is time to move forward.

“There is still a lot of work to do. It will be difficult and sometimes painful. For the future member states and for the EU.

READ MORE: Calls for Scotland to ramp up preparations for EU ahead of paper on rejoining

“To be credible, I believe we must talk about timing and homework. And I have a proposal. As we prepare the EU’s next strategic agenda, we must set ourselves a clear goal.

“I believe we must be ready — on both sides — by 2030 to enlarge.”

Michel further stressed that enlargement would not be easy, and it may see net contributors to the EU purse shoulder extra burden and net recipients need to begin to contribute.

“Enlargement is and will remain a merit-based process," he added.

There are currently 27 countries in the EU, with a further eight holding official candidate status. These are Turkey, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Moldova, Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has precipitated talk of EU enlargement across the continent, according to reports in the FT, with the topic to be the focus of detailed discussions between European leaders in Granada, Spain in October.

Dr Kirsty Hughes, the former director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER), said the announcement presented “serious food for thought for Scottish independence”.

She told The National that Michel’s statement spoke “to the real political momentum building behind enlargement after so many years of stasis on the west Balkans”.

Hughes went on: “In Brussels and member state capitals thoughts have turned to the internal reform the EU needs before it brings in more, poorer and, in Ukraine's case, war-torn members.

“None of this will be easy but this may in some ways resemble the way the enlargement dynamic took off in the 1990s, resulting in the big enlargement of 2004 to central and eastern Europe.

READ MORE: Scottish Government advice says Scotland could join EU four years after independence

“It had looked possible that the need for big internal reform and the challenge of bringing in current applicants from Ukraine to Albania could slow the enlargement process overall – something that an independent Scotland could get caught up in should independence happen in the rest of this decade.

“But Michel's statement puts a more positive slant on this. And it very much raises the question of why there is not a more serious, dynamic and engaged debate in Scotland on rejoining the EU.”

The UK’s two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour, both support Brexit and have ruled out rejoining the EU single market or customs union.

The SNP, Scotland’s largest party, support joining the bloc after independence but would need to secure a Yes vote before negotiations can begin.

The party's president, former constitution secretary Michael Russell, said Michel's speech should "emphasis for Scottish voters the need for Scotland to be a member of the EU, taking advantage of the enlarged community and the single market, not stuck outside".

The SNP’s policy convener, Toni Giugliano (below), said the comments from the European Council president showed that “now is the time for Scotland to choose”.

The National: Toni Giugliano photographed by Colin Mearns at an All Under One Banner rally

He told The National: “The EU is an expansionist organisation and enlargement has been key to the success of the single market.

“Scotland has been an integral member for 40 years and we’ve been aligned with the acquis communautaire for decades – meaning that the accession process would be considerably shorter than countries who have never been a member and have to converge to meet the criteria.

“However, the longer we’re out of the EU the more our policy and legal frameworks will diverge, and the longer it could take to get back in.

“So now is the time for Scotland to choose – do we remain part of a failing Brexit Britain that has made us poorer, less competitive and less influential on the world stage, and face years of decline – or do we grasp the opportunity of economic transformation with independence in Europe.”

There have been calls for the Scottish Government to ramp up preparations for rejoining the EU, with an independence white paper on the issue expected in the coming months.