ALEX Salmond was last night accused of a "shameless cover-up" after the SNP Government announced it would fight a bid to force it to reveal if it has received legal advice on whether or not an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the European Union.

The SNP hit back at Scottish Labour's claim, accusing its opponents of "brazen hypocrisy", saying the anti-independence parties abided by the same non-disclosure convention.

The Scottish Government's controversial move came as a senior Brussels source told The Herald: "Logic says an independent Scotland would have to apply. It would have to be a new member state but it would probably be fast-tracked, which would take two to three years."

The issue of whether or not an independent Scotland would have to apply to become a new EU member is one of the hot points of discussion in the referendum debate.

The SNP insists a newly independent Scotland would not have to apply and would automatically become an EU member by dint of the fact the UK is already one.

However, this view is contradicted by legal advice given to the UK Government, which said: "Scotland is only part of the EU by virtue of the UK's membership.

"If Scotland were to leave, it would not automatically assume membership of the EU.

"EU law would require negotiation of the terms of an independent Scotland's membership of the EU."

If an independent Scotland did have to apply to become a member, it would have to meet the so-called Copenhagen Criteria, covering such things as having stable institutions and a functioning market economy.

It would also have to abide by the so-called EU acquis, covering the European Union's rules and conditions.

These state that "new member states are also committed to complying with the criteria laid down in the Treaty to be able to adopt the euro in due course after accession".

The Scottish Government maintains governments neither reveal the existence or content of legal advice.

Its political opponents, however, suspect either the First Minister and his colleagues have never received legal advice on the matter or, if they have, it contradicts the SNP's position.

Labour, in particular, has been pressing the Scottish Government on the matter, and yesterday it emerged the Scottish Information Commissioner has ruled the SNP Government "failed" to comply with legislation by refusing to reveal whether or not it received legal advice on an independent Scotland's status in Europe.

The Holyrood administration now has until August 21 to comply and say if it has received legal advice.

While the commissioner stopped short of ordering the actual release of any advice, political pressure will mount for Mr Salmond to do so.

Last night, the Scottish Government said it was surprised by the Commissioner's decision.

A spokesman said: "It is the long-standing and usual practice of the Scottish Government to neither confirm nor deny the existence or the content of legal advice.

"The approach we have taken on this issue is consistent with the UK Government position in a similar case they dealt with under equivalent legislation. We therefore intend to appeal and contest the decision."

Catherine Stihler, the Scottish Labour MEP who originally attempted to get the SNP administration to divulge the information, responded by saying: "This shameless cover-up will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and may not even be settled before the referendum takes place." She accused the Nationalists of using taxpayers' money to keep anything to do with independence secret.

Ms Stihler said: "Either it is bad news for their assertions, or they don't have any legal advice on EU membership.

"By arguing that people are not entitled to know such a basic point, the Scottish Government are effectively applying for a Salmond superinjunction against the people of Scotland."

However, Kenneth Gibson, the SNP MSP, said: "This is brazen hypocrisy by the anti-independence parties. The Scottish Government's stance on issues surrounding legal advice is the same as the UK Government's."

Mr Gibson added: "Scotland's position on EU membership is crystal clear: we are already an integral part of the EU and when we become an independent country we will be in exactly the same position as the rest of the UK as successor state."