NICOLA Sturgeon has said Scotland “will always be a European nation” as she told senior diplomats from across the EU why she was preparing for a new independence referendum.

The First Minister said that following the Brexit vote, her government had put forward compromise options to the UK to remain in the single market and the customs union but they – and Scotland’s vote to remain in the bloc – had been ignored.

Speaking at the European Policy Centre in Brussels during a one-day visit to the Belgian capital, the SNP leader underlined that she would work with other figures across Britain to fight to stay in the EU, but that she must also “consider the best way forward for Scotland”.

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Sturgeon noted that some of the contenders in the Conservative Party leadership contest are prepared to crash out of the EU without a deal as she underlined a growing divergence between Scotland and the Leave-supporting parts of the UK.

“Brexit demonstrates why Scotland needs the ability to chart a different course,” she said. “That’s why the Scottish Government is making the preparations now to give people in Scotland the choice of becoming an independent country.”

The First Minister added that her government was “determined to learn the lessons of Brexit” by seeking to increase support for independence in a consensual way.

She told those present of the Citizens’ Assembly that is being set up to “foster a debate that is open, frank, respectful and well informed”.

Senior diplomats from Germany, France, Sweden and Ireland were among those present at the event yesterday morning, which was also attended by academics and journalists from across Europe.

The First Minister spoke of the positive contribution an independent Scotland would hope to make and that Scottish values “of co-operation and internationalism” chimed with those of the EU.

Sturgeon said: “Scotland is, always has been, and always will be a European nation.”

She added: “The basic values of the EU are ones we identify with.

We like the idea of independent nation states co-operating for the common good. The commitments that heads of government made last month – defending one Europe, staying united, looking for joint solutions, promoting fairness, protecting democracy and the rule of law – they are ones which the Scottish Government endorses and wants to contribute to.

“In fact, for all of its imperfections – and all bureaucracies, governments and organisations are imperfect – there is an idealism to the EU project which appeals strongly to us. It is, at its heart, a peace project.”

Sturgeon also made clear that Scotland is not seeking to stay in the European Union simply to benefit from the free movement of trade and people.

“We also want to contribute Scotland’s ideas and talents to Europe’s shared challenges and to uphold and exemplify our shared values,” she said. “The Scottish Government will exert a positive influence whenever we can in the wider debate about UK membership. But in the spirit of international co-operation and solidarity, we also desire the option of taking our own place in Europe.”

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“We want not simply to benefit from free movement and free trade – although we do – we also want to contribute Scotland’s ideas and talents to Europe’s shared challenges; and to uphold and exemplify our shared values.

“In the 20 years since devolution, Scotland’s contribution to the EU has grown significantly. For all the current challenges we face, my hope – and my belief – is that it will grow further in the years and decades ahead. We look forward to working with our friends across Europe to make that happen.”

Sturgeon’s visit came less than three weeks after the European elections, where the SNP increased their share of the vote and won three of the six spots for Scottish MEPs.

Responding to the First Minister’s speech, Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive and chief economist at the European Policy Centre, said: “Given that the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit

is increasing, the question of what the future relationship between Scotland and the EU will look like has a new salience.

“In these circumstances, the case for EU membership of an independent Scotland has strengthened as long as Scotland is willing to accept the obligations of membership.”

Ahead of the European elections, the First Minister unveiled plans for a new independence referendum before May 2021.

A framework bill to establish the rules for the vote was published last month with the legislation due to be passed by the end of the year.