MALTA taking over the Presidency of the EU Council is the perfect example of a small, independent country punching above its weight in Europe – and a stark contrast to the damaging Brexit approach of the Tories, a senior SNP figure has claimed.

SNP MEP Alyn Smith welcomed Malta, a country with a smaller population than Edinburgh, assuming the six-month Presidency from today. He said the example of it taking on a leadership role in Europe showed that Scotland could thrive as an independent nation in the EU.

The Scottish MEP's call came after Nicola Sturgeon demanded a radical package of powers be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood which would allow Scotland to remain in the European Single Market if the rest of the UK pursued a hard Brexit.

She called for Scotland to be given power over immigration, business regulation, and employment rights.

Smith hailed the First Minister's plan and said that Malta's presidency of the EU Council gave an indication of how effective her plans would be.

The UK has already relinquished its scheduled presidency of the EU Council, having previously been due to take over from Malta in July 2017.

Smith said the UK Government was turning its back on future opportunities to be a leading force in Europe. He said: “I welcome Malta to their role in the Presidency of the EU Council.

"They’ve set an ambitious agenda for growth in Europe’s economy – using the single market and free movement of labour to the benefit of member states. What a contrast with the UK government who’ve turned their back on the role, and seem more and more intent on pursuing a damaging hard Brexit at a devastating cost to jobs and the economy.

“With a population slightly smaller than the City of Edinburgh, Malta is the perfect example of a small independent country that chooses to pool and share resources with European neighbours to make a significant difference – and in doing so, punches well above its weight in influencing decisions which have a global impact.

“On the priorities of this EU Presidency, they’re best addressed in partnership with other countries – whether that’s through coming together to address climate change or protecting those fundamental freedoms and rights to which all European citizens are entitled," he said.

“Analysis shows that the cost to Scotland’s economy of a hard Brexit, outside of the EU and the single market, could be around £11 billion a year, with a loss of 80,000 jobs. And, of course, there’s no mandate for the Tories to take us down that path," he added.

“That’s why the Scottish Government has set out plans to keep Scotland in the European single market and stop the national disaster of a hard Brexit.”