SNP seeks a way to avoid border checkpoints after independence

After Brexit, independence threatens ease of access to England across the border. Picture: Ian Rutherford
After Brexit, independence threatens ease of access to England across the border. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Brexit makes it much harder to find independence plan that keeps Scots in the EU with easy access to England

Imagine customs at Coldstream, presenting your passport at Gretna or checkpoints on the A1 and M74. A few years ago such a scenario would seem about as likely as medieval border reivers resuming their pillaging along the Anglo Scottish frontier.

But following generations of unhindered movement between Scotland and England, the political landscape is shifting. The myriad of constitutional conundrums posed by the Brexit vote has raised the prospect of a line on the map being transformed into a physical barrier.

As politicians of all persuasions attempt to get a grip on the consequences of June’s vote, the border question has come to the fore as Nicola Sturgeon has attempted to maintain Scotland’s relationship with the EU. As they grapple with the implications of the ever-evolving situation, their eyes are turning to what the future holds for the line that separates the ancient kingdoms of Scotland and England.

It is Sturgeon’s stated determination to keep Scotland within the EU despite the UK as a whole voting to leave, which has put the border with England at the heart of the political debate. What happens to the border has become the fundamental question, whether Sturgeon’s plans for protecting Scotland’s place in the EU are based on winning a second independence referendum or coming up with an option that involves staying within the UK.

The issue was thrown into stark relief last week when her former cabinet minister Alex Neil declared that keeping an open border with the rest of the UK would be “very difficult” to achieve if Scottish independence was defined as Scotland becoming a full member of the EU.

It is all too rare for a prominent SNP figure to depart from the party line and Neil was duly rebuked by Sturgeon after he made his comments in an article for Holyrood magazine.

The First Minister responded by saying there was “no reason” that a hard border – which exercises strict control over trade and the movement of people – would be created.

But Ian Bond, director of foreign policy for the Centre for European Reform, said border controls would be inevitable if Scotland voted for independence and was readmitted to the EU under standard conditions.

Since 2004 the package that accession states have to take on includes eventual adoption of the euro and full membership of the Schengen Agreement – the arrangement that allows passport-free movement across most of the EU bloc and from which the UK is currently exempt.

Assuming the rest of the UK made a clean break with the EU, moving from Scotland to England would require a passport, because the Anglo-Scottish border would become an external Schengen border. Similarly, customs would have to be set up on the Border, because it would become the external border of the EU.

“So if Scotland goes for the standard package then you really are looking at a much harder border,” Bond explained.

But with the outcome of the UK’s Brexit negotiations not yet known, there are still all sorts of other possibilities. According to Bond, the UK may end up remaining in the EU customs union – a status enjoyed by a few non-EU countries like Turkey.

That would end the requirement for a customs border at Gretna. But it would not be acceptable to hardline Brexiteers for whom the ability to strike free trade deals with other countries was a fundamental argument for leaving the EU.

Another possibility, according to Bond, would involve Scotland securing its own particular deal with the rest of the EU. For example, other EU countries might look at Scotland’s geographical position as part of an island that is not physically connected to the Continent. Bearing that in mind, an independent Scotland might be exempted from Schengen membership while remaining in a Common Travel Area with the rest of the UK – in much the same way the Irish Republic is now.

Under that arrangement, there might be the possibility of establishing a softer border which concentrated purely on customs, similar to the one which exists between Norway and Sweden. Norway trades with the EU but is not a member of the bloc. It is, however, part of the Schengen Area.

For some the Norway model provides a potential blueprint for the sort of deal that the UK could negotiate following June’s vote. Norway retains access to the EU’s single market through its membership of the European Economic Area. According to Professor Michael Keating, director of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Centre on Constitutional Change, it is the details of the Brexit deal achieved by the UK’s negotiators which will determine the nature of the Scottish/English border.

“It depends on what kind of border the UK is going to have with the EU,” Keating said.

In some ways the position is uncompromising. Before the June referendum David Cameron was told that free trade, the single market and free movement of people were inseparable parts of the EU membership package.

“This is what David Cameron was told – you can’t have bits of this and not the other,” Keating said. “As long as you stick to that position – you are either on one side or other of the EU border.

“Therefore if Brexit means coming out of the European single market then there is going to be a hard border. And Scotland is either going to stay within that UK hard border or it is going to come out of the UK and get into the EU, then it will be on the other side of that hard border.”

As Sturgeon knows and Neil acknowledged in his article, talk of a hard border would be a vote loser in any future independence referendum. That fact of political life was also tacitly acknowledged in Alex Salmond’s White Paper, which made scant reference to the issue other than to say that there would be no border controls.

In the run-up to the 2014 vote, No campaigners warned that border controls would be inevitable as a result of the Scottish Government’s determination to pursue a more liberal immigration policy than the rest of the UK.

Today the challenge of balancing the Scottish Government’s wish to attract more migrants with the Brexiteers’ intention to introduce more controls on immigration is more relevant than ever.

Of concern to Brexiteers is the idea that maintaining Scotland’s relationship with the EU would see EU nationals move to Scotland with the intention of skipping over the Border to work in the English and Welsh black economy.

Those fears apply whether Scotland is independent or whether Sturgeon manages to cut a deal that involves remaining in the UK and EU. Similar concerns have been raised that the uncontrolled border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic allows illegal immigration into the UK.

Keating said: “If the UK comes out of the EU and Scotland comes out with it then you have got no border between England and Scotland. But whatever happens there is going to be that border between the two parts of Ireland, because the Republic is staying in the EU and the UK is leaving.”

Although not a direct parallel with the Scottish/English situation, many of the concerns about the Irish border could apply to the border on the British mainland. In particular, the idea that illegal immigrants could use a soft border either in Scotland or Northern Ireland to get into the rest of the UK. But Lord Bew, professor of Irish politics at Belfast University and a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, said concerns that Ireland would become a magnet for immigrants were slowly being answered by the adoption of electronic surveillance methods.

At a recent meeting of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly there was unanimous support for maintaining a soft border for trade and other reasons.

“Every single speaker from every shade of Unionist to Nationalists – from the most Green to the most Orange, and all shades were there, and it included some Scots – every speaker said no hard border,” said Bew.

Although Ireland’s violent political past meant massive military installations once overlooked the north-south divide and checkpoints were commonplace, Bew said appearances were deceptive and the border was actually relatively soft.

“There never was a particularly hard border,” he said. “When I was growing up there were checks for smuggling and occasionally you were stopped. There were custom checkpoints on the border, which you could avoid quite easily.”

So if there is hope that a soft border can be maintained in Ireland – despite the upheaval of Brexit – Sturgeon must hope there is a lesson for Scotland. While talk of a Donald Trump-style wall, as pioneered by the Emperor Hadrian two millennia ago, is not on the cards. Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre and one of Sturgeon’s panel of EU advisers, admitted the idea of a hard border “cannot be excluded”.

But he added that all parties “would do whatever they can to avoid” one. “The reality is that within the Schengen Area countries have very different asylum systems. So it is not necessarily the case that different freedom of movement means you have to have a hard border. There are other ways of managing that process.”

As Keating put it, “The obsession with physical control is completely misplaced. It is about entitlement to work. People can come across the border for shopping or whatever. It is whether they are entitled to work there – whether they get health care, what their social benefits are and whether they are allowed to settle there.”

But with so many Brexit-related imponderables still to be resolved there is still huge uncertainty over how Scotland’s border with England will evolve.