BY EFFIE DEANS
While support for the SNP remains high and while many Scots support independence at least in theory, there is no question now that both face an intellectual challenge over EU membership. For this reason, the independence movement has become divided over how to overcome the challenges caused by Brexit. While the UK was an EU member it was possible to argue that if only an independent Scotland could gain EU membership too then life would go on much as before. Scotland in that case would trade as freely with the former UK as any other EU member and there would be no requirement for border checks either on goods or on people. Scots would have exactly the same rights to live and work in the former UK as we do at present simply because EU citizens had these rights too. The EU guaranteed that Scottish independence would not disrupt trade and free movement with the former UK, but this ceased to be the case after Brexit, which is why the SNP fought for Remain.
There would still have been disadvantages if Scotland had voted Yes in 2014. We would still have had to replace UK Government funding with either spending cuts or tax rises. Scotland therefore would have been poorer, which is why a majority of Scots voted No. But the argument is unquestionably worse now than it was then.
The pandemic has shown even more clearly that Scotland depends on UK Treasury money to supply us with vaccines and furlough. Scotland’s deficit has become larger and it is more unconvincing than ever to suppose that we would become richer by giving up free money from Mr Sunak. But worse still Brexit has completely changed the logic of the SNP argument and it has yet to come up with a convincing answer.
If the SNP had voted for Theresa May’s soft Brexit which would have kept the UK in the EU’s Customs Union, there would have been no issue with trade between an independent Scotland and the former UK, but the SNP thought along with other Remainers that it could stop Brexit completely. This was a strategic failure that means the SNP now has to deal with the fact that the UK is neither in the Customs Union nor the Single Market. It means that the border between England and an independent Scotland would be the external border of not only the EU but its Customs Union and Single Market.
The SNP argues that Scotland could have a similar relationship to Ireland’s with post Brexit UK. There is after all no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But this is because Northern Ireland remains de facto in the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market and Ireland remains in the Common Travel Area.
But for an independent Scotland to be in Ireland’s position would require the whole of the former UK to become like Northern Ireland and for the Common Travel Area to be extended to Scotland post-independence. The SNP would have to persuade the former UK to accept de facto EU membership and to have Brexit in name only. Membership of the Customs Union would make trade deals with places like Australia difficult if not impossible. Membership of the Single Market would mean the former UK would have to accept free movement of people from the EU. In that case the former UK might as well rejoin the EU. To suppose that an independent Scotland would be like Ireland is to suppose that the former UK would embrace Remain to make the SNP’s life easier, which is unlikely at best given than the SNP is the only major party campaigning to rejoin the EU.
Some prominent independent supporters, notably Alex Salmond, have suggested that Scotland might initially join EFTA (European Free Trade Association) as a way of avoiding a hard border. The main distinction between EFTA and the EU is that EFTA members are not in the EU’s Customs Union, which enables them to have trade deals with other countries. But EFTA does involve being part of the Single Market and accepting free movement.
Would EFTA membership help an independent Scotland avoid a hard border? The problem for Scotland is that it would only help if the former UK could be persuaded to form a customs union with Scotland. It was after all the maintenance of the de facto EU Customs Union between Ireland and Northern Ireland which enabled them to avoid a hard border. But if the UK has rejected a Customs Union with the EU, why would it choose to establish one with an independent Scotland?
Scotland in choosing the EFTA route would still have to follow the rules of the Single Market, which would make the Scottish economy gradually diverge from the former UK’s economy, but a custom’s union only works when countries have a common external trade policy, which would mean Scotland having to follow former UK rules on standards and trade. But this would be incompatible with membership of the EU’s Single Market. Either EFTA or EU membership would require the Scottish economy to follow the EU path and diverge from the former UK, which would make a customs union undesirable if not impossible for both economies. If Scotland wishes to align itself economically with the UK and maintain the Customs Union and Internal market that exists at present between the parts of the UK, the only way to do this is to remain in the UK.
All present EFTA members are part of Schengen while none are parts of a customs union with each other or anyone else. Scotland’s being in a customs union with an economy as large as the former UK might turn out to be incompatible with EFTA membership even if the former UK could be persuaded to agree to it. It is therefore hard to see how a trade border between the former UK and Scotland could be avoided. It would not be in the interest of the former UK to align itself too closely with an independent Scotland because it would find itself having to follow EU Single Market rules in order to stop Scotland disobeying them. It is impossible to imagine a former UK Government agreeing to this.
Ireland at present retains free movement with both the UK and the EU due to the Common Travel Area. Would this option be open to Scotland after independence? The Common Travel Area was set up in 1923 as a way to avoid patrolling the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. If Northern Ireland were to cease being part of the UK there is no reason to suppose that the Common Travel Area would continue. Whether Scotland was admitted to the Common Travel Area after independence would depend on the other members. Scotland would have no right to membership and it cannot be assumed.
One of the reasons why Scottish membership of the Common Travel Area might be problematic is that membership of Schengen is a condition for joining the EU. Ireland has an opt out. EFTA members might also object to Scotland avoiding membership of Schengen. But if Scotland were part of Schengen, then there would be no border checks between Scotland and the other parts of the EU. But there have to be border checks between Schengen and non-Schengen members otherwise someone could fly from Greece to Edinburgh and then simply get a bus to London.
Free movement between the UK and Ireland requires that Ireland has a similar immigration policy to the UK and that there is no large-scale illegal immigration between the two countries. Scotland would not be able to be part of the Common Travel Area if it followed SNP policy of significantly increasing migration to Scotland, not least because there would be nothing to keep these migrants in Scotland.
The Common Travel Area is as much an anomaly as Northern Ireland’s continuing to be de facto part of the EU. The historical context (decades of terrorism) applies to the border between the UK and Ireland, but it does not apply to Scotland. Leaving the EU meant that the UK had to give up free movement with the EU. Scotland cannot assume that leaving the UK would not involve giving up free movement too. The SNP might wish for an independent Scotland to be like Ireland, but this would require both the EU and the former UK to agree. There is no guarantee that they would do so.
Prior to the pandemic and certainly prior to Brexit, we had the idea that most borders would be open and that they were just lines on a map that could be ignored. But we have discovered that even the internal borders within the UK have been closed on the whim of Nicola Sturgeon. But if the SNP finds it convenient to close a border which is not even an international border, so too might a UK Government decide that in the event of Scotland voting for independence it would promise to make life as difficult as possible for Scots.
Just as the UK Government decided in 2014 that it was not interested in a currency union, though the SNP wanted one, it might also decide that it was not interested in allowing Scotland to continue to enjoy the benefits of being part of the UK after leaving. This after all was the line that the EU took after Brexit. If the EU can take away our European citizenship and rights to live and work in the EU, the UK Government might decide that the best way of persuading Scots not to vote for independence is to promise them that there would be no open border between Scotland and England whether Scotland joined EFTA, the EU or the Star Trek Federation. It could build a fence or dig a moat and there is nothing much the SNP could do about it.
The UK would be destroyed by Scottish independence, there is no reason to suppose it should react any differently to this existential threat than the EU did over Brexit.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.