NICOLA Sturgeon will today meet a top European diplomat as he travels to Scotland to seek to build closer ties with the country post Brexit and as the First Minister prepares to step up preparations for indyref2.

She is to speak with Italy's Ambassador Raffaele Trombetta this morning in Edinburgh at the start of his two day visit which also comes as the Scottish Government seeks greater international engagement.

Scotland has a large Italian community and many of its members were anxious about their status to live in Britain after the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016.

Ms Sturgeon previously met with Mr Trombetta in 2018, two years after she wrote to EU nationals living in Scotland assuring them she would try and protect their position.

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"As I stated on the morning after the vote Scotland is your home, you are welcome here, and the contribution that you make to our economy, our society and our culture is valued. I would also like to assure you that the Scottish Government is pursuing every possible option to protect Scotland's position in Europe and, by extension, the interests of the people from across the European Union who live here," she said at the time.

Her letter was welcomed in EU circles.

Last year the EU's ambassador to the UK Joao Vale de Almeida gave a message of appreciation to Ms Sturgeon for supporting European citizens in Scotland.

"I thank the Scottish Government for all of the support in reaching out to our EU citizens in Scotland during the last year or so,” he told journalists in October.

“I thank the First Minister and of course I very much welcome continued support to our citizens as they contribute to Scotland’s economy."

And head of his visit Mr Trombetta (pictured below) last night thanked the Scottish Government for its help.

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“Three years after my first visit, I am delighted to finally have a chance to return to Scotland. In the meantime, many things have changed: Covid and Brexit have been the big game changers in the life of all the Italians living in the UK," he said.

"While the pandemic seems to have eased its gauge on all of us, we are still dealing with the consequences of Brexit. This visit is an occasion to thank Scottish institutions for their support and collaboration in the registration campaign of EU citizens in the EU Settlement Scheme.

"In particular, we know we can rely on the attention of the Scottish Government in continuing to guarantee all rights, in all areas, of Italian citizens residing in Scotland and facilitate the regularization of the most vulnerable categories, the elderly, unaccompanied minors and the homeless."

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He added: "It will be interesting to hear from the Scottish Government about the efforts and measures put in place to boost the economy and local development after the most intense peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. There is an interesting parallel to the latest Italian systemic reforms, powered by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan.

"Italy is creating the conditions to make our south a new fertile ground for investment in five or ten years, based on an effective logistics network and a more favourable juridical and administrative environment. I deem we can share best practices on this and build together a new model for a more equal development throughout our countries. Scottish institutional funds may also look into these new investment opportunities in Italy.”

The First Minister has signalled she will give an update this Spring on her plans to hold a second independence referendum before the end of next year and campaign to take Scotland back into the EU as an independent country.

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chats with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a COP26 reception in Glasgow last autumn.  

In the meantime her government has been seeking to extend its influence in the EU and has opened a series of headquarters in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Dublin. A new 'Scotland House' office is to open this spring in Copenhagen.

The ties are primarily focused on increasing business and trade opportunities but the Scottish Government also hope more global recognition will lead to favourable opinion in Europe on Indyref2 and smooth access to joining the EU should Scotland become independent.

Earlier this month Angus Robertson, the Scottish Constitution and External Affairs Secretary, referred to international reaction should the UK Government continue to oppose a second independence vote.

"The UK Government telling the people of Scotland what they can and can't do, that fundamentally changes the nature of the UK, will move the question on from being the challenge of independence to democracy itself," Robertson told BBC's Newsnight.

"And that will be viewed not just domestically but internationally as countries around the world will look at the UK and will see an entirely different state than they previously thought it was."

There are currently just under 26,000 Italian citizens living in Scotland (and Northern Ireland, which is part of the Consulate General’s constituency), an 13% increase  compared to the numbers registered in 2019 (22,754).

Italians are the third largest EU community in Scotland (behind Poland and Romania). They are mainly concentrated in Edinburgh (37% of all Italians in Scotland), Glasgow (23%) and Aberdeen (6%).

According to data provided by the University of Glasgow, Brexit led to an 80% drop in enrolment applications at Scottish universities from EU countries.