NICOLA Sturgeon has expressed hope and optimism about her bid to protect Scotland’s place in the European Union after receiving a “sympathetic response" from some EU leaders during her diplomatic charm offensive in Brussels.

After meeting Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, and the leaders of several political groups, the First Minister had talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, who made clear that, following the referendum result, in which 62 per cent of Scots voted for Remain, Scotland had "won a right to be heard" in the EU’s corridors of power.

Noting how her efforts to protect Scotland’s interests were at an early stage, Ms Sturgeon insisted: “If there is a way for Scotland to stay, I am determined to try and find that way.”

She said she had left the Belgian capital "in good heart and optimistic," stressing that Mr Juncker in particular had given her a "very sympathetic response".

However, the opposite was true of the reactions from Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, and Francois Hollande, the French president, who poured cold water on Ms Sturgeon's drive to retain Scotland’s status in the EU when the UK eventually quits.

Mr Rajoy, whose country has proved a staunch opponent to Scottish independence due to fears it could encourage a secessionist movement in Catalonia, said: "If the United Kingdom leaves, so does Scotland. Scotland has no competences to negotiate with the EU. The Spanish government rejects any negotiation with anyone other than the United Kingdom."

Mr Hollande echoed the sentiment, saying: "The negotiations will be conducted with the United Kingdom, not with a part of the United Kingdom."

The FM dismissed the remarks from the Spanish as an unsurprising "starting position," saying: “I have a duty as First Minister to find a way to give effect to the democratic will of Scotland.”

She said she respected that negotiations would be carried out at UK level, despite having said at the weekend that she would embark on "immediate discussions" with other member states to explore "all the possible options to protect Scotland’s place in the EU."

While Spain could potentially decide Scotland's EU fate given all the bloc’s governments would need to approve the accession of a new member, senior SNP sources contrasted the largely warm reception Ms Sturgeon received with painful efforts to engage with the EU ahead of the 2014 independence referendum, characterising the experience as "like night and day".

Indeed, Alex Salmond, Ms Sturgeon’s predecessor, claimed the meeting with Mr Junker signalled "a very significant shift" in Scotland's relationship with Europe.

The former SNP leader recalled how two years ago he had "had the door shut" on him by former Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso when he sought talks on keeping an independent Scotland in the EU.

He suggested the choice Scottish voters would have in the next independence referendum could be one between the “European Union or the British Union”.

In Edinburgh, senior pro-EU Scottish Conservatives accused the FM of making a tactical error by embarking on “freelance diplomacy” in Brussels without working first with the UK Government.

At Westminster, the SNP leader Angus Robertson asked David Cameron about what the UK Government was doing to "protect Scotland's place in Europe".

Stressing how the best deal for Britain would also be the best deal for Scotland, the Prime Minister made clear: “Our membership of the European Union is a UK membership and that is[from] where we should take our negotiating stance.”

Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who backed Brexit, echoed the point, saying: "EU rules are very clear, membership is at member state level. It's a national question; it's not possible within EU rules to have a part of a country being part of the European Union.”

In a separate development, US investment bank JP Morgan said it now expected Scotland to vote for independence and introduce its own currency before Britain left the EU in 2019.

"Our base case is that Scotland will vote for independence and institute a new currency at that point," said the bank’s economist Malcolm Barr in a note to clients after the finance house produced a paper analysing the consequences of the UK’s vote to quit the Brussels bloc.

Ms Sturgeon has already instructed the Scottish Government to prepare legislation for a second independence poll, saying how the vote for Brexit made another referendum on Scotland’s future “highly likely”.