THE UK and the EU will have a closer relationship regardless of whether Labour or the Conservatives win the next general election, according to a top European diplomat.

Inigo Lambertini, the Italian ambassador in London, said the Windsor Framework which updated the Northern Ireland protocol, represented the start of a more pragmatic approach by Britain towards Brussels and the end of one based on an "ideological" stance.

"The nasty process is over," he told The Herald on Sunday.  "The path is moving towards increasing relations."

EU expert Anthony Salamone, managing director of the consultancy European Merchants, said the confidence in Europe that the UK and EU were heading towards closer arrangements may present a challenge to the SNP's position that only by becoming independent can Scotland have a closer relationship with the bloc.

"Figures in Brussels, Rome and elsewhere now want to rebuild the EU-UK relationship over time, using the Brexit deals as the foundation. The EU’s objective is not to get the UK to rejoin the bloc. Instead, the aims are to improve post-Brexit cooperation and to encourage the UK to prioritise economic links with the EU," said Mr Salamone.

"This newfound spirit of cooperation demonstrates that the EU and the UK can build a closer partnership after Brexit. In Scotland’s case, it also shows that independence is not the sole route to a better relationship with the EU. The question is whether the SNP and others can welcome improved EU-UK relations in the present – not least given that hypothetical independence and Scottish EU membership would be years away in any eventuality."

Mr Lambertini set out his views after meeting with First Minister Humza Yousaf in St Andrew's House, Edinburgh last Wednesday.

Speaking to the Herald on Sunday the Ambassador also made clear Italy would not block Scotland joining the EU if the country became independent, though he noted such a situation was currently hypothetical.

"I don't know if the Windsor Framework will solve the Northern Ireland situation but what is important was the message of common trust," he said.

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"Without common trust it was not possible for the UK and the European Union to reach the Windsor Framework. We say framework as that means it is the beginning of a process.

"What happened after the Brexit referendum is we had for seven years quite an ideological confrontation, a sort of nasty divorce. But it is possible to have a civilised divorce....The Windsor Framework is the beginning of a pragmatical solution."

The Ambassador was asked whether he believed there would be improved relationship between the EU and the UK after the general election with Labour's Keir Starmer hoping to oust the Conservative's Rishi Sunak from Downing Street.

Mr Lambertini said: "I think it doesn't matter who will be the next government in the UK, the path is clear, whether it is a Starmer government or a Sunak government, the path is moving towards increasing relations."

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He was asked whether that was just his hope or his assessment of the situation.

"No that is the force of the reality," he replied.

"The Windsor Framework [shows] the need to find a way to live together. The nasty process is over."

Asked if Scotland became independent would Italy like to see the country back in the European Union, he said: "It would be a decision, hypothetically of an independent Scotland, but if this would be the decision of a Scottish Government, it would not be rejoining but joining the EU, with all the technicalities that the process imply.

"We have never denied any candidate the possibility of becoming a member. Since we have been in the European Union we have had several enlargements and Italy has never against any enlargement."

During the interview, the Ambassador also expressed a wish to see the Scottish Government set up a university exchange programme with institutions on the continent, to replace Erasmus, which the Welsh Government have done.

"It was a very intense meeting. [The First Minister] was a very nice host," Mr Lambertini said when asked what issues were discussed.

"We spoke about how to strengthen relations between Italy and Scotland. We spoke about the Italian communities living in Scotland and he asked me a little bit about the new government in Italy and some future cultural activities."

The Ambassador said Mr Yousaf did not raise any concerns about the political direction of Italy which last year shocked many European observers by electing a government led by the far right Giorgia Meloni. The 46-year-old is Italy’s first female Prime Minister and is leader of the Brothers of Italy Party, which has neo-fascist origins.

The Herald:

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni attends the swearing-in ceremony at the Quirinal Palace on October 22, 2022 in Rome, Italy. Far-right politician Giorgia Meloni became Italy's first woman Prime Minister. Italians voted in the 2022 Italian general election on 25 September which was called after the dissolution of parliament was announced by Italian President Sergio Mattarella on 21 July. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images).

She is opposed to equal marriage and same sex parenting and critics have accused her of Islamophobia and promoting anti-semitic conspiracy theories.

The Herald on Sunday told Mr Lambertini that many people in Scotland were concerned about Italy's political direction.

Asked whether the First Minister raised concerns in their meeting, the ambassador stressed that Ms Meloni is the first woman Prime Minister of Italy.

"The First Minister asked me about the |Prime Minister [of Italy] and the government," he said.

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"What I explained to him is we have quite a new elected stable government. It's not always the case. The Prime Minister is the first woman ever in power in Italy.

"We never had a female Prime Minister, we never had a female President. We never had a Queen. We never had a female Pope. I think of the picture of the last G7 summit [last month] of the G7 leaders and the only two women were the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the Italian Prime Minister."

He added: "This ceiling was broken by quite a young lady coming from a not so fancy neighbourhood, daughter of a single mother. She comes, and she never denies it, from a Conservative history, a right party...There are some parts of it which have very conservative positions on the issues you have raised.

"But in Italy we have legislation made by a previous government which was centre left."

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He suggested for PM Meloni to overturn the legislation on same sex marriage the government would have to get a new law through Italy's Supreme Court and the European Courts of Justice.

Asked whether the First Minister raised concerns that the Italian Prime Minister opposed same sex marriage and equal parenting, he said: "No he did not."

Mr Lambertini was asked whether Mr Yousaf raised Scottish independence in their meeting.

The Ambassador replied that the two discussed the future of relations between Italy and Scotland in particular in terms of links between universities in both countries which he said had become "more complicated" since Brexit with students in Italy now facing higher fees and requiring visas to study in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.

Figures have shown a sharp decline in the number of EU students overall coming to study at British institutions since the UK left the EU.

"What we agreed is that it's time to [work] together and that there could be space for a pragmatic solution to make the process easier," he said adding that there had been a move away among Italian students studying in Britain with many now choosing to study in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Spain.

"The quality of UK universities is still on the top but the effort to be part of this system day after day is too much," he said.

He was asked whether he would like the Scottish Government to introduce a student exchange programme, as the Welsh Government have done, to replace Erasmus.

He said: "That could be a solution. I don't know where we are with this discussion but there is a way to find pragmatic solutions."

Mr Salamone added that it was difficult for Scottish politicians to criticise the domestic politics of another country and to do so could open up attacks on Scotland.

He said: "Countries always balance their values and their interests when they deal with other countries. That balance is a particular challenge for Scotland, given that it is not a state and therefore not an equal in the community of states. In any case, if Scotland intends to criticise other countries for their failures, then it should accept other countries criticising Scotland for its failures."

Responding to the Ambassador's comments on a new Scottish student exchange programme with EU universities, Graeme Dey, Minister for Higher and Further Education said: “The UK Government’s disappointing decision not to associate to Erasmus+ currently prevents Scotland from participating fully in its own right.

“The programme had a major impact in Scotland. Proportionally more students from Scotland took part in Erasmus than from any other country in the UK, and proportionally more EU students came to Scotland on Erasmus than to anywhere else in the UK.

“The UK Government’s replacement Turing Scheme fails to match the breadth and scope of Erasmus+. It offers no provision for inward mobility to the UK, nor does it offer any provision for staff inward or outward mobility.

“We are working with stakeholders on the shortcomings of the Turing programme and ways to address those.”