As the No camp and Scottish media cycle diligently through their three favourite scare stories (EU membership-currency-border posts, round and round and over and over), they regularly alight on the one that has the most bearing on normal people’s lives.
That is, that because the current Scottish Government proposes to undertake differing immigration policies to those of the UK after independence, Scotland would “pose an open-border threat” to the rest of the UK, and that therefore you’d need to go through border checks to visit your grandpa in Penrith.
Clearly we haven’t debunked that one in sufficient depth yet, so let’s go.
(Readers could be mistaken for thinking otherwise, given our look at how two countries can have borders right through their towns, or even buildings; our gallery of other open borders across Europe; our analysis of how the existing Common Travel Area and geography of the UK meant border posts were nonsensical; our examinations of how passports will be affected and the ramifications for cross-border trade, travel and business; and finally how the Schengen system operates and the reasons we would be unlikely to join. But Project Fear is deathless and tireless, and so must we be.)
The latest incarnation of Scare Story #3 comes from the Secretary of State for Portsmouth, Alistair Carmichael, who warned recently that the rUK would be forced to place guards at the border in the event of a Yes vote.
“It is just not possible, it won’t work. At the moment [the system] works very well. We are one country with a single labour market and a single immigration policy. If you draw a line on a map and you have one immigration policy on one [side] and a different immigration policy on the other then inevitably one side or the other is going to want to protect the integrity of their systems.”
“That is the real danger… that one side or the other will want to protect whichever is the stricter of the two policies. And you do that by putting in place border controls, whatever shape or form that takes.”
Carmichael then went on to cite the example of the Republic of Ireland (ROI), which shares the Common Travel Area (CTA) with the UK and is not part of the Schengen zone, and claimed that in order to remain in the CTA, the ROI had a broadly similar immigration system to the UK.
But is that either true or relevant? To find out, first we need to ask another question: what’s the actual purpose of border controls? There are basically six aspects:
- check who’s coming into the country
- check what they’re coming for
- see that they’re not abusing the system
- prevent non-desirables entering
- check who’s leaving the country (eg wanted criminals)
- apply duties on trade
The UK and Republic of Ireland work together in the Common Travel Area (CTA) to achieve these goals. Within the CTA, the UK and ROI have agreements on what checks are in place to ensure that the wrong people don’t get through, but the CTA makes no stipulations on how many visas each country issues or for what purpose.
The ROI has its own immigration protocols, including work permits (where a person can stay and work in a designated job subject to a job offer, provided the employer can prove they were unable to recruit locally); ‘Green Cards’ (where a person can stay for 2 years and even bring their immediate family over to stay with them – this would typically cover higher-skill or skill-shortage jobs); student visas; graduate visas (where graduates are given between six months and a year to remain in the ROI and find a job under the Green Card system); and other visa types for business and tourism.
The point of the CTA is that for an island nation it’s easier and cheaper to police the various points of entry into the UK and ROI (airports, ferry terminals etc) than it is to try to police a large land border. The purpose is NOT to create a unified immigration policy across the CTA members, but rather a unified screening process.
To listen to Alistair Carmichael, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the UK was pushing for a giant wall around Northern Ireland with barbed wire and watchtowers in order to “protect the stricter of the two policies”. Yet we hear no calls for the erection of such a “Shamrock Curtain”, despite the Irish border having been crossed for decades by people with intent far more malicious than claiming housing benefit.
To highlight just how different the ROI and UK immigration systems are, let’s take a comparative look at their respective visa requirements for certain countries. We’re going to use Bolivia, Fiji, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Taiwan and Venezuela as our examples, for reasons which will shortly become clear.
You don’t need a visa to land in Ireland if you’re a citizen of one of the EEA member states (the 28 EU countries plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein), or if your country is on this list. Keen-eyed readers will have noticed that ALL of the countries referred to above are on the list for entry to the ROI without the need for a visa.
At the same time, this list shows the countries whose citizens ARE required to obtain a visa before entering the UK. Again, alert viewers may notice that ALL of the countries referred to above are on the list. This means that there are seven countries which Ireland doesn’t require a visa to be issued for that the UK does.
Given the large and unpatrolled border between the ROI and the UK, clearly this is an “open border threat”. So if Carmichael, Alistair Darling, Margaret Curran et al are right, then it must be impossible to walk down the streets of Edinburgh or Dundee without being accosted by hordes of Bolivian pan-pipe bands or Malawian folk groups.
No, we haven’t noticed them either. Instead, yet again, what we see is that the No camp’s arguments for why we must either remain in the Union or turn into Cold War-era East Germany have gaping, whole-country-sized holes in them.