Scotland closer to freedom from UK

Referendum likely in 2014

Scotland takes a big step on its path towards an independence referendum on Monday when its leader meets Britain’s prime minister to finalise arrangements for a vote which could lead to the demise of Scotland’s three-centuries-old union with England.

Scotland’s drive for sovereignty, led by its nationalist leader Alex Salmond, echoes separatist moves by other European regions such as Catalonia and Flanders at a time when a crisis-hit European Union undergoes deep changes to its identity.

Expected to be signed in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, the deal will allow Scotland to decide in a 2014 referendum whether it should become an independent country or stay within the United Kingdom.

Nationalists have timed the vote to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn when Scottish forces led by Robert the Bruce defeated English invaders.

Prime Minister David Cameron opposes Scotland’s push, arguing that Britain is stronger together. But London agrees it is up to Scotland to decide its future for itself in a vote. “There are many things I want this (government) to achieve but what could matter more than saving our United Kingdom?” Cameron said in a speech last week. “Let's say it : We're better together and we'll rise together.”

Following months of negotiations, both sides have made major concessions to pave the way for the final accord to be signed on Monday by Cameron and Salmond at Edinburgh’s St Andrew's House - the seat of the Scottish government.

“The agreement will see Scotland take an important step toward independence, and the means to create a fairer and more prosperous Scotland,” Salmond said ahead of the meeting. “I look forward to working positively for a yes vote in 2014.”

Scotland already has many of the trappings of an independent nation such as its own flag, legal system, sports teams, as well as a distinctive national identity following centuries of rivalry with its southern neighbor. London argues an independent Scotland - home to about five million people - would struggle to make ends meet as the bulk of its current funding comes from a 30 billion pound ($48 billion) grant from the UK government.

But one of the most contentious issues at stake is the ownership of an estimated 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil and gas reserves beneath the UK part of the North Sea.Britain is also worried about the future of its nuclear submarine fleet based in Scotland which says there would be no place for atomic arms on its soil following independence. Moving the fleet elsewhere would be costly and time-consuming.

Many Scots themselves are unconvinced. Opinion polls show only between 30 and 40 per cent of them support independence.

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