By Elisabeth O'Leary and Gabriela Baczynska

EDINBURGH/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - First Minister Nicola Sturgeon vowed on Saturday to protect Scotland's European Union membership and said a fresh independence referendum was possible after Britain voted to leave the bloc.

"We will seek to enter into immediate discussions with the EU institutions and with other EU member states to explore all possible options to protect Scotland's place in the EU," said Sturgeon, speaking outside her official residence in the Scottish capital.

"A second (Scottish) independence referendum is clearly an option that requires to be on the table, and it is very much on the table," she said.

The EU executive, which was cool to Scots' demands to stay in the EU before their 2014 vote on independence from the United Kingdom, was non-committal, however, as Brussels grapples with how to handle unprecedented divorce proceedings with Britain.

Scots rejected independence in the 2014 referendum by 55-45 percent and at the time the vote was considered a decisive verdict for a generation. Since then support for independence has not shifted significantly, according to polls.

But on Thursday, the United Kingdom voted overall to leave the EU, but Scots voted by 62-38 percent to remain. Sturgeon's SNP says many Scots opted against independence in 2014 because they believed that was the only way to guarantee EU membership.

The SNP argues Thursday's outcome changes the case for independence, and many Scots may reassess their 2014 vote. Sturgeon said on Friday a new referendum was "highly likely".

After meeting ministers in her devolved government on Saturday, Sturgeon said Scotland would not allow its EU membership to be taken away and would seek to build broad-based support at home and abroad to maintain it.

She said she would establish a panel of experts to advise the Scottish government on legal, financial and diplomatic matters concerning EU membership.


The European Commission reacted by saying Scotland was "part of the UK". It declined to "speculate further."

A source close to the Scottish government said Edinburgh was not discouraged and took that only "as a statement of fact."

Other EU governments are wary of encouraging the Scottish overtures, despite some increase in sympathy around the bloc for the position pro-European Scots now find themselves in.

A Polish center-right member of the European Parliament, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, tweeted on Saturday about Scotland's hosting of many Polish workers now and of Poland's exile army in World War Two: "Thank you Scotland!" he said. "Welcome in EU!"

EU diplomats stressed that Scotland faces many hurdles to joining a bloc consumed by Brexit and that several veto-holding member states, notably Spain, fear a Scottish secession could boost their own separatist movements.

"We have other problems on our heads right now than feeding Scottish nationalism," said one senior EU diplomat.

"Let them try and consult with Madrid first."

The Scottish Greens, the parliamentary kingmaker for Sturgeon, said any new vote should be decided by "clear public appetite", but included the independence option.

"It is too soon to say whether and when a further referendum on Scottish independence will take place, but in the wake of the EU referendum result few people will doubt that it must be on the table," a spokesman for the party told Reuters.

Willie Rennie, leader of Scotland's pro-EU Liberal Democrats, said in a statement he had committed his party to backing Sturgeon's EU negotiation process, but had received a guarantee this was not a ruse for a new independence drive.

Splitting Scotland from England would end three centuries of shared statehood, upending another successful economic relationship shortly after the now-impending divorce between Britain and the EU.

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Alexander Smith)