Friday 24 June 2022

Would there be a hard border between England and Scotland?


Perhaps the most important issue that the SNP needs to address in order to persuade Scots that independence is a good idea is the border between England and Scotland. For many centuries this nominal border hasn’t really been a border at all, because neither England nor Scotland have been separate countries in the sense that their relationship was international, but rather parts of one country. But now for the first time since 1707 there is the real prospect of a manned border with checks and tariffs. It is hard to imagine Scots voting for this once we fully understand the consequences.

The border was not much of an issue during the 2014 campaign. The reason for this was that the UK was part of the EU and Scotland hoped to remain part of the EU after independence. If the former UK and Scotland could have ended up with the same EU status then the border would have been no more problematic than the one between Austria and Germany.

The Pro UK argument therefore focussed on two issues. One, would Scotland gain immediate membership of the EU and two, would Scotland have to join Schengen. We still don’t know how easy or difficult it would be for Scotland to join the EU post independence. EU member states, like Spain might not want to set a precedent. Scotland would have to meet EU membership criteria, such as a 3% deficit, which might be difficult to achieve. Some countries have been waiting to join the EU for years. We don’t know how long Scotland would have to wait.

The accession of Scotland is fundamentally a political issue for the EU. It would like to take revenge on the UK for Brexit and would delight in pointing out that a consequence of leaving the EU was the breakup of your country. But there are potential secession issues in Belgium, Spain, Italy and others, so the EU would have to be careful that it didn’t import the issue from the UK to itself. But let us assume that an independent Scotland were offered rapid accession to the EU. What would be the consequences for the border between England and Scotland?

The SNP’s Mike Russell has suggested the Northern Ireland Protocol as a model for avoiding a hard border between Scotland and England. He thinks that


that the post-Brexit trading arrangement between Great Britain and the island of Ireland is a model that would allow “seamless” trade if it was adopted between Scotland and England.


It is true that the Protocol allows more or less seamless trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but Scotland would not be in the position of either. If Scotland were in the EU and the former UK were not, then there would have to be checks somewhere. There is not a sea between Berwick and Gretna, so whatever checks were required could either be done remotely or they would have to be done at the border.

The UK Government and indeed the Irish Government initially argued for remote checks using technology at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but this was rejected by the EU. It’s for this reason that we have the Protocol, which requires form filling and bureaucracy involving goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland, to the extent that many British firms don’t bother to trade with Northern Ireland anymore. If this is the model Mr Russell is proposing it has the unfortunate consequence of very much resembling a hard border.

But even the level of checking that we have at present across the Irish sea is a result of a unique situation that would not apply to Scotland after independence. The UK agreed to first the Backstop and then the Protocol, because Theresa May conceded that there could be no border infrastructure at all between Northern Ireland and Ireland. She accepted the Irish Government’s interpretation of the Belfast Agreement, because she hoped for the softest possible Brexit, which had the inevitable consequence that if checks could not take place at all between Belfast and Dublin, they would have to take place across the Irish Sea.

But there hasn’t been thirty years of terrorism involving the Scottish Republican Army and so there is no equivalent to the Belfast Agreement. A former UK might wish to keep the border between Scotland and England completely open, but it would not be constrained to do so. It would depend on how Scotland’s negotiations went both with the EU and the former UK.

There are open borders between EU member states and non-members. Norway has a more or less open border with Sweden as does Switzerland with the countries that surround it. But this is because Norway and Switzerland are both members of the EU’s single market and Schengen zone. The only hope for a completely borderless relationship between England and Scotland would be if the former UK chose membership of both. But it is precisely this that the UK electorate rejected at the General Election of 2019 and there is minimal prospect of this decision being changed.

The SNP might hope that Scotland would at least remain part of the Common Travel Area that at present covers the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. But this would depend on Scotland obtaining an opt out from Schengen. But the EU doesn’t wish to give new member states the option of avoiding Schengen or indeed the Euro. The SNP might argue that Scotland could obtain opt outs for both, but the EU might see this as evidence that Scotland wasn’t so enthusiastic about membership after all.

If Scotland needed to join Schengen, then this would necessarily involve border checks and passport controls between Scotland and England. If that were not the case then migrants in Calais would not have to cross the Channel in rubber boats, but could instead get a cheap flight to Glasgow and a bus to London. Rather less than paying people smugglers thousands of pounds.

Even if Scotland could avoid joining Schengen, it could not avoid free travel between EU member states and Scotland. This in itself would effectively give free travel between the EU and the former UK unless there was some sort of border control between Scotland and England, otherwise EU citizens could move to England from Scotland freely too.

The EU involves both free travel and free trade between member states, but this has consequences for the relationship between member states and non-member states. If Scotland were to be a member of the EU’s single market and the former UK were not, then it is inevitable that Scotland would have to apply the Common External Tarriff when trading with the former UK. Free travel between EU member states and Scotland inevitably involves free movement also with the former UK unless there is some sort of border monitoring. If that were not the case the EU would not be checking us and stamping our passports when we go on holiday to Spain. If passport checks are necessary between the UK and France now, they must be necessary between EU Scotland and non-EU former UK after independence. It’s a matter of simple logic.

The Northern Ireland Protocol does not therefore help the SNP. Firstly, there is no reason the former UK would agree to such a Protocol, not least because the British Government does not like it at present and wants to abolish it. Scotland would have no means of forcing the issue. Secondly the Northern Ireland Protocol involves lots of checks and bureaucracy and only does not involve passport checks because Northern Ireland is part of the UK.

It is very difficult to predict what sort of border would exist between England and Scotland after independence, but the only way a seamless border like that between Northern Ireland and Ireland could be achieved is either if the former UK joined EFTA or if Scotland chose to not join the EU.

The only realistic model of Scottish independence is one where Scotland has the same EU status as the former UK, hoping for a similar relationship as that which existed between Ireland and the UK until both joined the EC in 1973.

Having been part of a single country for more than 300 years it is unrealistic for Scotland to seek anything other than the closest possible relationship with the former UK. Any alternative would be too disruptive economically and in terms of trade. This is what Salmond offered in 2014.

But it was hard even then to believe that such a relationship would be an improvement on what we had unless you believed Scottish oil would make us substantially richer. Now even that has gone, leaving the idea that printing money à la Modern Monetary Theory won’t be inflationary, just as we discover that doing just that has caused inflation to reach 9%.

Scotland can have either a close borderless relationship with the other parts of the UK or it can join the EU, but the former may as well be what we have now and the latter merely substitutes one union with another. Scotland would be an independent state in the EU, but we would still have to do what our larger neighbour in this case Germany tells us and there is every chance in the decades ahead we would be a mere region in a country called the EU.

Scots may hate England and the Tories, but geography, history and population mean we must either follow them in which case we are better off being fellow citizens or decisively break with them in which case we cannot complain if there is a border. It is typical of SNP dishonesty that it does not clearly explain the choice.