Scottish independence: What it would mean for the Scotland-England Border – Dr Alison Smith

Walking a pet dog on the other side of the Border could become more complicated if Scotland becomes independent.

If Scotland became independent and joined the EU, the border with England would become more significant (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
If Scotland became independent and joined the EU, the border with England would become more significant (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

That was one of the more surprising details raised in a comprehensive new report about the likely effects of a post-independence Scotland-England border.

Professors Katy Hayward, Queen’s University Belfast, and Nicola McEwan, University of Edinburgh, both experts on borders and territory, teamed up to write the report, which was published last week by independent research organisation UK in a Changing Europe. It offers the most authoritative analysis yet of the Scotland-England border issue.

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The report assumes that an independent Scotland would eventually join the European Union, as the SNP proposes, though this would be a gradual process. The Scotland-England border would therefore become an external border of the EU and would need to become ‘harder’.

What would this look like in practice? The report suggests that there would be customs checkpoints on four main trunk roads: the M6/M74; the A1; the A68; and the A6091/A7.

Traffic could be kept moving by splitting the trunk roads in two: a ‘green lane’ for those with nothing to declare or pre-declared goods; and a ‘red lane’ for those with goods to declare.

Minor routes could be monitored using cameras. Natural barriers like mountains and rivers define much of the Scotland-England border, and Scotland is otherwise surrounded by sea, so the risk of smuggling would be relatively low. However, Scotland and England would need to cooperate closely on crime, security and border control.

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Many Scots want to know if they would retain passport-free travel to the rest of the UK if Scotland became independent. The answer is ‘probably’. The Common Travel Area (CTA) facilitates free movement between Britain and Ireland, including the right to live, work, travel and vote.

In principle, an independent Scotland could negotiate the same status as Ireland. This would mean joining the CTA and opting out of the EU’s Schengen Zone. However, Scotland would have no automatic right to these concessions from the continuing UK and the EU, and negotiations might stall over other issues.

If Scotland were to become independent and rejoin the EU, it would regain frictionless trade with 31 EU and European Economic Area (EEA) countries, but would lose frictionless trade with England and Wales.

This matters because 60 per cent of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which now governs trade between the UK and the EU, imposes customs declarations, checks and controls on goods crossing the border. Some smaller Scottish businesses have found the new rules so onerous that they have ceased trading across the UK-EU border. Larger companies have hired staff to deal with the bureaucracy.

The rules for moving animals, animal products and plants across the UK-EU border are particularly burdensome, as Scottish fishers and farmers exporting to the EU have already discovered.

It is possible that the UK and the EU will reach an agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary standards before any independence vote. If not, trading with England under the current Trade and Cooperation Agreement would hit Scotland’s important agri-foods sector hard. Moving agricultural products back and forth across the border for different stages of processing would no longer be viable.

Scotland would also need to work out how to get goods to and from the continent. The report identifies three options: to expand direct ferry services to the EU; for sealed trucks to cross the English ‘land bridge’; and to use the island of Ireland as a ‘land bridge’. Since the UK left the EU, new ferry routes between Ireland and the continent have opened as hauliers seek to avoid the delays and paperwork of the UK ‘land bridge’.

All of these changes would come at a sizeable economic cost. Citing an earlier paper from London School of Economics, Hayward and McEwan put the cost of trade disruption caused by a harder border at between 6.3 and 7.6 per cent of Scotland’s income per capita.

Over time, businesses would adjust and new opportunities would open up. When Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973, more than half of its trade was with the UK. Today that figure is nine per cent. However, this gradual change took 50 years.

The report warns that Scotland should not expect to replicate Northern Ireland’s special status, with a foot in both the UK and EU regulatory zones. An exception was made for Northern Ireland because of its violent recent history and the obligations created by the Good Friday Agreement.

If Scotland were to become independent and seek to join the EU, the EU would expect Scotland’s status to mirror that of the Republic of Ireland. While negotiating a Schengen Zone opt-out is a realistic goal, the rest of the EU’s trade and border rules would need to be implemented in full.

The consequences of borders are personal as much as economic. A hardening of borders, with different rules on either side, would complicate everything from family reunions to organising amateur horticultural shows.

The EU has strict rules for pets crossing borders: dogs must be vaccinated, microchipped and have a pet passport. Those living in the ‘borderlands’ would feel the full impact of a harder border because they cross the border for daily tasks like work, shopping, visiting family and walking their dog.

Hayward and McEwan’s report is impeccably researched, impartial and focussed on practicalities. It will ultimately be up to Scottish voters to decide whether the desire for political independence outweighs the costs and inconvenience of a harder border.

However, there is no excuse to avoid incorporating Hayward and McEwan’s findings into any forthcoming White Paper on Scottish independence.

Dr Alison Smith is an author and political analyst at Political Developments

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