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Scotland takes giant step toward independence vote

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 9:18 p.m.

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Scotland takes a big step on its path toward an independence referendum on Monday when its leader meets Britain's prime minister to finalize arrangements for a vote that could lead to the demise of Scotland's 300-year-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 Great Britain is stronger together. But London agrees it is up to Scotland to decide its future in a vote.

“There are many things I want this (government) to achieve, but what could matter more than saving our United Kingdom?” Cameron asked in a speech last week. “Let's say it: We're better together, and we'll rise together.”

After 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 before the meeting. “I look forward to working positively for a yes vote in 2014.” Scotland 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 after centuries of rivalry with its southern neighbor.

London argues an independent Scotland, home to about 5 million people, would struggle to make ends meet as the bulk of its current funding comes from a $48 billion grant from the U.K. 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 U.K. 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 after independence. Moving the fleet elsewhere would be costly and time-consuming.

Many Scots are unconvinced. Opinion polls show only between 30 and 40 percent of them support independence — a range that has changed little as negotiations intensified.

“Independence is about Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, becoming a separate state, taking on all the burdens and risks that go with that and losing the benefits and opportunities that we have as part of the U.K.,” U.K. Scottish Secretary Michael Moore told the BBC.

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