Independence and the border

Constitutional Futures Initiative
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Independence and the border

Brexit has re-energised the campaign for Scottish independence and tied support for independence more closely to support for the European Union. Independence in the EU remains the ambition of the SNP Government. But Brexit brings new challenges to that ambition, not least regarding the status and management of the border that Scotland shares with England. Following independence, the Anglo-Scottish border would be an international border between Scotland and the (remaining) UK. It would also become a new UK-EU border if Scotland rejoined the EU. As an EU member state, Scotland would be required to manage and protect this EU border.

A woman speaking at a lecture in Edinburgh
Professor Nicola McEwen FRSE, Professor of Territorial Politics, University of Edinburgh

What does border management look like?

Border management is the responsibility of all independent countries. Border authorities need to check who or what is crossing the border, that the criteria for entry are satisfied, and that entry can be denied if they are not. The scale of border management is influenced by the relationship and agreements between the countries on either side. Checks also vary depending on who or what is crossing the border and the purpose for doing so.

Some border checks take place ‘at the border’. This may involve physical inspections of documentation or goods. Many checks take place ‘behind the border’, in warehouses, in workplaces, or via IT processes. Surveillance technology can be used at some border crossings, especially away from the main crossing points. But technology does not eliminate the need for some physical infrastructure and inspections.

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The Anglo-Scottish border after independence

In a report for the UK in a Changing Europe, Professor Katy Hayward and I considered what checks and processes might be necessary to manage the Anglo-Scottish border in the event of independence in the EU.[1] Because this would also be a UK-EU border, most of the rules underpinning border management are derived from the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA).


  • Under the TCA, customs procedures and other bureaucratic checks would be required both at and away from the border. Heavily regulated products like agri-foods and medicine require specialist facilities and personnel at the border to oversee checks.
  • An agreement to align the UK’s sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards for agrifood and plant products with those of the EU would eliminate the need for most border checks. But such an agreement would undermine the ability of the UK to set its own standards and has been rejected by the UK Government.


  • The majority of trade between Scotland and England is in services. The TCA has very few provisions with respect to services. This might make it possible for Scotland and the rest of the UK to come to separate arrangements to support services trade.


  • An independent Scotland in the EU would likely secure an exemption from the EU Schengen arrangements, in favour of maintaining the Common Travel Area (CTA) on a similar basis to Ireland. This would have to be agreed by the European Union. The CTA allows free movement for British and Irish citizens across these islands, including the freedom to work, study, access services and sometimes vote. There may be some tightening of rules – taking goods or pets across the border, for example – but we do not anticipate the need for passport checks at the border.


Professor Nicola McEwen FRSE, Professor of Territorial Politics, University of Edinburgh

This article is part of the Constitutional Futures Initiative.

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