LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday rejected a call from Scotland’s leader for a referendum on Scottish independence before Britain leaves the European Union.
May said “now is not the time” to reopen Scotland’s independence debate, though she did not rule out a referendum in the future. Britain is due to begin the two-year exit process from the 28-nation bloc by the end of this month.
The United Kingdom is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The country as a whole decided in a June 23 referendum to leave the EU, but in that ballot Scots voted 62 to 38 percent to remain.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced earlier this week that she will seek a referendum on Scottish independence between the fall of 2018 and spring 2019, so voters can decide whether to leave the EU with the rest of the United Kingdom or to go it alone.
The British government must agree to a legally binding referendum and May said “now is not the time.”
“All our energies should be focused on our negotiations with the European Union,” May said, adding that holding a referendum while EU exit talks are still underway would “make it more difficult for us to get the right deal for Scotland and the right deal for the U.K.”
May’s stance sets up a showdown with Sturgeon’s Edinburgh-based administration. Sturgeon will ask the Scottish parliament next week to start the process of seeking a new referendum.
Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party does not hold an outright majority in the legislature. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, whose party has the second-largest bloc of seats, said the Tories would oppose it.
“We reject conclusively the timetable for a referendum set out by the Scottish government,” she said.
Davidson said voting on independence without knowing how Britain was faring outside the EU would mean that “on the most important decision we can make, we would be voting blind.”
Britain’s EU exit moved closer Thursday when a bill authorizing the British government to begin divorce proceedings became law. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow announced that the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act had received the assent of Queen Elizabeth II.
The bill was passed by Parliament on Monday but needed royal assent to become a law. Such assent is a formality — no monarch has refused to sign a bill for more than 300 years.
May is now free to invoke Article 50 of the EU’s key treaty, triggering two years of exit negotiations.
She says she will do that by March 31, calling it a “decisive moment” for Britain. The prime minister’s office has indicated notification will come in the last week of the month.
Under the terms of the EU treaty, Britain will no longer be a member of the bloc two years after May issues the notification. The British government hopes to seal a new free-trade deal between the U.K. and the bloc in that time.
But EU negotiators warn it could take two years just to settle the divorce terms, and agreeing on a new relationship for the U.K. and the EU could take years longer.