Scottish National Party offers to pay post-Brexit fees for EU citizens

The Scottish National Party has pledged to pay any post-Brexit fees slapped on EU citizens working in Scotland's public sector. The party said the UK should continue to benefit from "the free movement of people."

The Scottish National Party (SNP) began its annual conference on Sunday with a promise to "take concrete steps to help" public servants from the European Union who work in Scotland.

In a position paper published at the start of the three-day Glasgow event, the SNP said it believed the UK should "remain in the EU single market and continue to benefit from the free movement of people."

The British government has put forward plans to grant so-called "settled status" after Brexit to EU citizens who have lived in the UK for five or more years. It has also suggested that those applying to register for the status may have to pay a fee.

The SNP said it would cover any costs for those working in the local public sector to "help us to retain the doctors, nurses and other valued public servants that we need."

Read more: How much pain will Brexit bring to Scotland? 

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SNP leader First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed the plan in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation on Sunday. "We will pay that for workers in the public sector. Why? Because it helps individuals, it helps us keep vital workers in the NHS (National Health Service) and public services, and it sends a message to EU nationals that we want them to stay here because we welcome them," Sturgeon said.

Scottish independence not on agenda

Sturgeon shied away from committing to a time frame for another referendum on Scottish independence, after a 2014 vote saw 55 percent of Scots opt to remain with Britain. However, she did say that Britain's complicated Brexit negotiations with the European Union were strengthening the separatist cause.

"People watch the chaos that is engulfing the UK right now and people look ahead and see the damage that is likely to be done by this unfolding disaster that is not just Brexit but this incompetent and chaotic approach to Brexit being presided over by [Conservative Prime Minister] Theresa May," she told the BBC.

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"I think the case for Scotland's future in Scotland's hands [...] is becoming greater and stronger by the day."

Sturgeon has argued that Scotland needs another independence referendum, given that 62 percent of Scots voted for Britain to stay in the EU in a Brexit referendum last year, compared to the 52 percent in Britain who backed a split.

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"I won't give any further consideration to the timing, until Brexit and the terms of Brexit become clearer, until we've got a clear line of sight about what all that means for Scotland," Sturgeon told the BBC.

Read more: Separatist movements in Western Europe

Catalonia vote in the background

Although independence was not on the agenda at the weekend conference, SNP members were closely watching events in the Spanish region of Catalonia, which last week held an independence vote marred by violence.

Former SNP lawmaker Kenny MacAskill said the crackdown by Spanish police and Britain's failure to condemn it would fuel Scotland's own separatist ambitions. "For SNP members, the failure of UK parties to properly condemn what happened in Catalonia further justifies the case for Scottish independence," he told the Herald daily.

Sturgeon has voiced concern over the situation in Catalonia but the party she leads has sought to avoid being seen as supporting an independence bid that was ruled unconstitutional by Spain's government and courts. Catalonia's regional government has said it plans to announce independence next week.

nm/jlw (AFP, Reuters, dpa)