Voting Starting For Scottish MEPs

Voters across Scotland will go to the polls today to elect the country's six European MPs.

While politics north of the border has been dominated by the independence referendum, today's poll focuses on Scotland's links with the European Union (EU).

Less than three out of ten Scots voted in the last European ballot five years ago, with the turnout of 28.6% below the figure for the UK.

The 2009 election saw Labour and the SNP win two Scottish MEPs, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both returning one MEP.

Alex Salmond's party won the largest share of the popular vote then, with 29.1% of the vote, ahead of Labour's 20.8%.

This time round the SNP are hoping to up their share of the vote in a bid to win an additional MEP amid speculation that the fall in support for the Liberal Democrats could see them lose out.

The Greens and Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party (Ukip) are also bidding to win what would be the first Scottish MEP for both parties.

Mr Salmond said the contest for the last European seat is between his party and Ukip as he urged "people of tolerance from across Scotland's political spectrum to look at the nasty, intolerant agenda of Ukip and use their vote to firmly reject that brand of politics''.

The First Minister said the European elections were "an important chance to determine the kind of Scotland we want to live in''.

He declared: "The contest for Scotland's sixth seat is between Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and Nigel Farage's Ukip, and people of all political shades who want to stop Ukip can play their part and back Tasmina and the SNP.''

David Coburn, the lead Ukip candidate in Scotland, hit out at Ms Ahmed-Sheikh, who he said had previously been a member of the Conservatives.

"She doesn't let her principles get in the way of her ambition, so people are not going to vote for her,'' he said.

He said it was "looking very much like'' he could win a seat in the European Parliament as he argued: "Ukip are the only party in Scotland who want to get out of the EU. All the other parties to a greater or lesser extent want to stay in.''

Labour candidate Catherine Stihler said voters should "not let Alex Salmond use this election as a launchpad for separation in September''.

She said: "Scottish Labour's priorities - creating jobs, scrapping zero hours contracts, land reform and cutting bankers bonuses - speak for our over-riding vision of justice and equality.

"This election is your chance to send a clear message: We want to be part of a strong Europe and a strong United Kingdom.''

Conservative lead candidate Ian Duncan said a vote for his party "means reform and renegotiation'' of the UK's relationship with the EU ahead of a proposed in-out referendum on EU membership in 2017.

He said 60% of Scots wanted a referendum on Europe but added: "It won't happen if the SNP is allowed to tear Scotland out of the UK - in that scenario we would lose all the hard-won benefits we receive just now, including our rebate, opt-out from the Euro and VAT exemptions on goods like children's clothes.''

Liberal Democrat candidate George Lyon insisted: "The choice isn't between the SNP and Ukip. The choice is between growth and stagnation, between investment and isolation, between opportunity and uncertainty.''

He added: "Being in Britain and in Europe means keeping Scots in work.

"Scotland needs MEPs entirely focused on keeping jobs and investment coming to Scotland from our European partners - not preoccupied with jeopardising our place at Europe's top table.''

Councillor Maggie Chapman, the Scottish Greens' lead candidate for Europe, said: "Electing Scotland's first Green MEP would send a positive message about the kind of country we want: an economy that works for all, rejects the Nato nuclear alliance and is a welcoming country.

"There is no sharper contrast than my message of hope with Nigel Farage's message of fear and suspicion.''

While people across the UK go to the polls today, voting across other parts of Europe goes on till Sunday.

It is expected most Scottish local authorities will declare the results from their area late on Sunday night, but the full results for Scotland will not be known until Monday when the figures from the Western Isles - where counting does not take place on a Sunday for religious reasons - are declared.