This week, as already noted on this site, we’ve seen another unwelcome deployment of the old “you’d need a passport to visit your granny in Carlisle once the border posts go up” fearbomb. It’s a simple argument that tries to play on both the aversion to borders in trade and travel, and also the fear of immigration.
The reality, as you may have come to expect by now, is rather different.
The Unionist argument goes like this; an independent Scotland would lead to border posts being erected between Scotland and rUK, since Scotland would be required to join up to the Schengen agreement as part of their entry requirements to the EU as an independent state.
(We’ll leave aside the fact that Scotland would already be in the EU, despite the many assertions to the contrary from the No camp, and focus on the argument as it stands.)
Scotland currently benefits from being in the Common Travel Area (CTA) of the UK and Ireland, which includes the Republic of Ireland (ROI). When the Schengen agreement was set up in 1995, creating cross-border freedom of movement within the 26 states that signed, the UK and ROI opted out and maintained the existing CTA that allowed free travel between the two countries.
The two governments justified this position on the grounds that both are island states without any land borders (except with each other) who can better control immigration via the various sea and airports into the CTA. Inevitably this requires a large amount of co-operation on the immigration policy between the two countries.
It is this system that the Yes Scotland campaign says will be maintained after independence; after all, runs the logic, if the CTA is allowed for existing EU members the UK and ROI then why would Scotland be denied the same option, particularly as Scotland is already in the CTA and the EU as part of the UK?
Expanding on the theme of borders this week was an article in the Scotsman from Brian Wilson entitled “SNP plans border on the ridiculous” which noted:
“The issue of Scottish immigration policy was addressed by our external affairs minister, Humza Yousaf, who bemoaned the “restrictive” approach pursued from Westminster.
“He asserted that independence is the only way to get an immigration policy suited to Scotland’s needs. In other words, we would have a different immigration policy from what was left of the UK. At this point, one wonders if these guys ever think anything through before glibly declaring policy.
“Inescapably, where a land border exists with different immigration policies on either side of it, you get border controls for both goods and people. So, while complaining about UK immigration policy is one thing, committing Scotland to a different regime is a can of worms that Yousaf has obligingly opened.”
Missing from this statement is the recognition that Scotland would be in the European Economic Area (EEA) as part of the EU, along with – UKIP permitting – the rUK. The EEA consists of 27 EU Member States and three EFTA States (Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway), some of which are in Schengen and others which aren’t. Its purpose is to create into an internal market governed by the same basic rules.
These rules aim to enable goods, services, capital, and persons to move freely about the EEA in an open and competitive environment, a concept referred to as “the four freedoms”. Because of the EEA, there are no trade restrictions between internal borders of the EU and EFTA meaning that goods can pass from one country to another seamlessly and without fear of restriction.
The only threat to the four freedoms would be if the rUK chose to leave the EU in 2017 and also didn’t renew its membership of the EEA (the world’s largest free trading community) by other means. However if Westminster decide on that course of action then Scots would be significantly better off having voted for independence and remaining within the EEA trading bloc. Needing a passport to travel to England would probably seem a small price to pay given the economic bullet they’d just dodged.
(In fact, not even the most anti-EU Tory and UKIP politicians have advocated leaving the EEA, and for good reason. It would be tantamount to national economic suicide.)
But what about immigration? The argument is being put across that if Scotland is within the CTA then it would not have any freedom to change immigration policy and would in practice have to be dictated to by the rUK, whose politics on the subject are currently racing to the right at breakneck speed.
Wilson makes this argument, saying:
“Immigrants are, by definition, people who can see the benefits of cross-border mobility. So, if it became obvious that the easy way into “restrictive” England (by then under permanent right-wing government) was to board a plane to welcoming Inverness before catching the first train to London, then why would they not do that if there were no border controls to challenge them?”
But why would immigrants prefer “restrictive” England to Scotland? Imagine you’re an immigrant coming to Scotland on either a student or a work visa. In order to have received that visa you must have obtained an invitation letter from either your place of study or from your employer (easily verifiable to the Scottish borders agency) and have somewhere to live.
Why then would you decide to up sticks, leave your studies or employment and move the length of Britain to become an illegal immigrant in a country whose government is increasingly right-wing & anti-immigration, which is in the process of dismantling the NHS and the welfare state, where illegal immigrants sleep in garden sheds, paying exorbitant rents to do so in order to be treated as slave labour, and is a country from which you could be deported at any moment?
Before spending hundreds of millions of pounds* on setting up border posts – and enraging the business community by doing so – any rUK government would have to consider just how big a threat such a scenario posed. And with the immigrant “problem” in England largely concentrated in the south, it’s difficult to imagine any Westminster government seeing any votes to be won by such a course of action.
But even if there were, in the post-UKIP political landscape of England, what of the practicalities? The land border between Scotland and England stretches for 96 miles between the Solway Firth along the Cheviot Hills and the river Tweed, to the North Sea. It was legally established in 1237 by the Treaty of York between England and Scotland, and has remained unchanged ever since with the exception of a small area around Berwick, which was taken by England in 1482.
So what would the rUK government do? Build a 96-mile-long, heavily-policed wall to stop the Scots and English from mingling? Because there’s no other way to prevent cross-border travel, and without such a wall the costs of setting up border posts – which would only be used by law-abiding citizens anyway – would have no effect on illegal immigration, drugs or human trafficking, or any other aspect of border control. Those who wished to bypass border control would simply cross at another point, making the whole thing an expensive, politically-insane exercise in futility.
*(We know that the Israel–Palestine “security wall” is 430 miles long and cost about £1bn to construct, so we could reasonably speculate that to undertake such a project would cost the rUK government somewhere in the region of £223m, although probably much more given Westminster’s track record with large infrastructure projects.)
But what if, contrary to all reason, they went ahead? The scrapping of the Nimrod fleet left the country without eyes and ears out over the water, a situation highlighted spectacularly when the HMS York was dispatched to Scotland all the way from Portsmouth in response to a security scare as a Russian fleet (including an aircraft carrier) came within 30 miles of the Moray coast in 2011.
The cuts had left the coastline so vulnerable that an aircraft carrier could sneak up on the UK, never mind a couple of determined guys in a rowing boat. Coupled with the fact that the UK government even went so far as to cut emergency tugs around Scotland to save money – thereby endangering shipping right round Scotland and forcing BP to step in to ensure safety – it is hard to conceive that Westminster would have the spare cash (or the will) to build the sort of border installations that it’s trying to scare the population of Scotland into believing will exist after independence.
Dire warnings of checkpoints and passports exist solely as scaremongering – the moment Scots voted Yes they would have lost their purpose. The rUK would have nothing to gain from wasting vast sums of money on a Berwick-to-Carlisle version of the Berlin Wall, and the motives of anyone suggesting otherwise must be treated with the greatest of suspicion.