Independent, post-Brexit Scotland - would there be a hard border with England?



Suppose Brexit happens, and the UK leaves the EU without a customs union. Scotland then has a 2nd independence referendum on the basis that they voted heavily to stay within the EU, and Scotland ends up leaving the UK. Scotland then tries to rejoin the EU, and has the support of the other 27 nations.

What would be the situation with the English-Scottish border? I'd assume that a hard border between the two would be fairly unpalatable and possibly not even practical. Would Scotland need to become an EU backstop (i.e. comply with applicable English/Welsh laws / tariffs / immigration policy ..), effectively reversing the UK/EU backstop situation in Northern Ireland?

Algy Taylor

Posted 2019-04-30T21:15:33.777

Reputation: 396

Question was closed 2019-05-07T11:07:32.467

9Why would a hard border be impractical? There are only a handful of roads that cross the border, which is very short compared to most countries, and very different to NI where the border is half the circumference of the country. – Mike Brockington – 2019-05-01T10:46:45.483

1@MikeBrockington - from what I understand, there's a fair amount of cross-border traffic (e.g. Dumfries - Carlisle or around Berwick), so having a hard border could heavily impact those communities. I imagine there's also a fair amount of trade between England/Wales/NI and Scotland, and having different regulations for both wouldn't be particularly helpful (if they tories get their way, probably in making Scottish produce more expensive since I'd assume over time EU regulation will be stricter than England-Wales and maybe NI) – Algy Taylor – 2019-05-01T11:02:55.873

7There is certainly a fair amount of trade currently with the EU, so there is a trade-off (excuse the pun) to be made somewhere. – Mike Brockington – 2019-05-01T11:05:09.060

2@Abigail on the contrary, I believe the intention is to have a transition period before the actual separation from the UK so that EU membership can be as uninterrupted as possible. – pjc50 – 2019-05-01T12:27:44.077

@pjc50 that could be the intention, but it doesn't seem terribly likely at this point. – phoog – 2019-05-01T14:30:05.903

@phoog on what basis? – pjc50 – 2019-05-01T16:04:45.190

1@pjc50 on the basis that the UK is likely to leave in six months, and the UK government has basically said that they will not countenance another referendum on Scotland's departure from the UK. So it looks likely that the UK will leave the EU before Scotland can leave the UK, in which case Scotland's EU membership will be interrupted. Furthermore, it strikes me as unlikely, though possible, that the EU would countenance accession negotiations with Scotland before Scotland's independence, especially not while the UK remains a member. – phoog – 2019-05-01T16:21:31.377

@Abigail: Why would there necessarily be a hard border between England and Scotland, any more than there used to be a hard border between the US and Canada? (I grew up a couple hundred miles from the US/Canadian border, when even the coins were interchangable :-)) – jamesqf – 2019-05-01T16:48:01.543

1@photo Every delay has made Brexit less likely; in six months the UK still will not have a supportable Brexit plan. It was basically over at the second extension. – pjc50 – 2019-05-01T16:54:22.410

A hard wall, as seen in the movie Doomsday.

– bishop – 2019-05-01T18:09:43.900

Most of the answers assume that without continuous subsidy from England, the Scottish economy is viable. Unfortunately, the oil price crash disproved that economic fairytale before enough Scots bought the lie to vote for independence last time around. But the English can still hope for better luck next time... – alephzero – 2019-05-02T00:19:43.437

1There's a few comments here that are very charged on whether Scottish independence is a good thing. To me, that's highly subjective and not what I'm asking about. I'm just interested in one practical aspect of it (the border). – Algy Taylor – 2019-05-02T09:19:22.473



I'd assume that a hard border between the two would be fairly unpalatable and possibly not even practical.

I’m not sure that that is going to be true and I assume you are making a comparison with the Northern Ireland border here. Allow me to very briefly highlight the problems of the Northern Irish border, the only current land border the UK has.

In its current state (both sides EU and Common Travel Area (CTA) members), both goods (Common Market) and people (CTA) can freely cross the border as they desire and no checks are necessary. In the Hard Brexit scenario where the UK does not remain in the Common Market or a customs union, the free movement of goods would be restricted—but people can still pass freely thanks to the CTA. Obviously, people if unchecked can bring goods across the border (which would be smuggling and evasion of customs/taxes), so the people need to be checked to ensure they don’t. This requires border posts or inspections of some sort which, as anybody who studied (Northern) Irish history for 5 minutes should immediately recognise as a pretty bad idea™.

The principle reason why the Irish border is a problem is the history, not the requirement to introduce any kinds of checks. The England–Scotland border has a very different history. The two countries had been fully independent until 1603 and then two kingdoms under a personal union until the Act of Union in 1707. The border between the two has been recognised commonly as a line on the ground for centuries and is even mentioned as one of the oldest extant borders in the world; even after the Act of Union, everyone has always agreed on what is on which side of the border (minor exceptions apply). While in modern times there is little difference between either side of the line (the most obvious probably being the possibility of encountering £1 notes north but not as likely south of it), it would not be hard to reestablish it, i.e. make it more noticeable.

Placing border posts there would be annoying to travellers and people living on the border (as it always is) but since there is a clear ‘English’ and a clear ‘Scottish’ side (rather than a big ‘Irish’ fudge) it is very unlikely for these checks and posts to incite anything even remotely akin to what happened in Ireland. In addition, a Scottish referendum would come first, so the people on the northern side would have had their say on the matter and approved of it as a whole.

For people, the border could well remain very open as both sides could remain in the CTA. Only a simple photo ID like a driving licence would likely be needed to cross it and it would basically be like crossing the channel. For goods, potentially more elaborate inspections would be needed due to the different customs areas (again assuming a Hard Brexit scenario). Not like anything that has happened anywhere in England recently but not unheard of at other European borders. The overall result would be a little inconvenience as I have already mentioned.


Posted 2019-04-30T21:15:33.777

Reputation: 8 390

1Even photo id might be unnecessary. Under the current implementation proof of citizenship (such as a birth certificate) can be enough for land and sea crossings. – origimbo – 2019-05-01T15:17:25.963

1@origimbo Interesting point, but I don’t want to make my answer too complicated ^^' – Jan – 2019-05-01T15:19:51.913

2"The border between the two has been recognised commonly as a line on the ground for centuries". Unless you count Berwick... – Michael Kay – 2019-05-01T23:07:36.150

It's hard picking an individual answer as 'correct' here, but this one seems to cover what I was asking the best. Also felt @o.m's answer was good, albeit posing a second question rather than answering the first (although the question itself is spot on - you couldn't answer my question without answering that one too IMO) – Algy Taylor – 2019-05-02T09:07:13.817


The customs considerations would be the same. There would have to be customs controls unless England joined the customs union. (Unless the EU somehow agreed to let Scotland join and remain outside the customs union, but that is unlikely indeed.) Newly-independent Scotland could presumably join the common travel area, so there would not need to be immigration controls. In short, the situation on the border between England and Scotland would be essentially the same as that on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Since you mention immigration policy, let me remind everyone that Ireland and the UK already have different immigration policies, as they have since the 1920s, and these policies are already different from the rest of the EU, as they have been since the beginning of the Schengen area, and there have never been immigration controls on the Irish border. Immigration policy is not a consideration in the Irish border question. Similarly, it would not be a consideration for the border between England and Scotland.


Posted 2019-04-30T21:15:33.777

Reputation: 9 434

2Whether immigration would be a consideration would depend on the political climate at the time. Unless it arranged an opt-out, Scotland would be expended to join Schengen, which a "United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland" might view as incompatible with potential membership of the Common Travel Area. – origimbo – 2019-04-30T21:36:17.493

15The Welsh are waving at you for forgetting them, origimbo. Well it looks like waving. It is some sort of gesture at you, at any rate. – JdeBP – 2019-04-30T23:40:59.713


@JdeBP They're there, you just can't see them. That's the difference between a hostile takeover using the sword and a hostile takeover using the chequebook:

– origimbo – 2019-05-01T00:27:22.067

@origimbo true. I expect that Scotland would either get the opt out or not join the EU. But who knows? – phoog – 2019-05-01T03:43:05.323

"In short, the situation on the border between England and Scotland would be essentially the same as that on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland." - this is exactly it. Watch out for unionists saying that there can be a frictionless border with Ireland but there can't with Scotland, because there will be absolutely no basis for this. – pjc50 – 2019-05-01T09:25:13.357

2The question there is would the EU be more leniant for an existing member put in a difficult situation by the UK than they would be for a potential new member. – Peter Green – 2019-05-01T12:59:27.973

3@pjc50 I think it’s the other way around. There has to be a frictionless border with Ireland due to the (Northern) Irish history but the border with Scotland does not have to be as frictionless. It can be, if both sides so desire but I do not see the strong Irish constraints applying. – Jan – 2019-05-01T14:48:07.553

1@Jan that's a good point. It could well be that the political situation in Northern Ireland justifies costs associated with maintaining an open border while the same costs would not be justified in Scotland. – phoog – 2019-05-01T14:55:00.370

@phoog Hard to see why no infrastructure would cost more than building and operating border infrastructure? – pjc50 – 2019-05-01T16:04:25.683

@pjc50 I'm thinking of the prospective technical solution that supposedly will allow a controlled customs border without physical infrastructure. Since that has never been done before, it will probably cost a lot of money, likely more than just installing the usual set of booths, cameras, and whatever else. It would presumably require additional infrastructure at the current external ports, as well. – phoog – 2019-05-01T16:16:08.827


I started to make some joking comment about hard borders and Hadrian's Wall... and then did some brief searching and discovered that Hadrian's Wall was never the border in the first place. Woops. Intended to be snarky, ended up learning something!

– Ti Strga – 2019-05-01T16:16:42.060

1Who's to say that there wouldn't be a "United Kingdom of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland", with England as a separate nation? – Dawood ibn Kareem – 2019-05-01T20:33:10.477

2@DawoodibnKareem indeed, I've heard that suggested, and there are good arguments for it, especially if it is achieved by England leaving the UK, allowing the remaining UK to retain its membership in the EU. The thing is that the likelihood of the UK parliament choosing a course of action wherein England leaves the UK is essentially zero. If the other countries leave the UK and then subsequently unite, there would be no real argument for their taking up the UK's membership in the EU. – phoog – 2019-05-01T20:48:31.297

England seceding has the problem that the UK has a desirable UN Security Council seat. Westminster will not relinquish that. – MSalters – 2019-05-02T10:01:44.763

@MSalters England could easily retain that seat, especially if it keeps the nuclear technology. The more significant political factor is that the English people who want to leave the EU would never countenance the breakup of the UK. Most of them view the departure from the EU as a way to improve the UK's position in the world, and I can't imagine that many would see the breakup of the UK as anything other than antithetical to that. – phoog – 2019-05-02T12:16:07.797

@phoog: How would England retain that seat if the other countries (including presumably the remaining UK) disagree? The whole point of England seceding would be so that the remaining UK is the successor state under international law. Only that part would remain in the EU, be bound by the ECHR, etcetera. England can't pick decide on its own per treaty whether it is or is not the successor state. – MSalters – 2019-05-02T12:26:51.163

@MSalters Perhaps other countries would agree, particularly if the remaining UK agrees. There is precedent in the ROC and the USSR, whose seats are now held by the PRC and Russia, respectively. There's nothing that says that the successor state must be the same for all purposes. Of course England can't decide on its own. We're so far in the realm of improbable hypotheticals that it's impossible to say anything with certainty, but if political will were to exist in England to break up the UK, I doubt the SC seat would be the main argument in opposition, or even a particularly important one. – phoog – 2019-05-02T14:07:07.697


The hard border is not just an immigration issue, perhaps not even mostly an immigration issue. The EU had freedom of movement long before the internal border checks got reduced to the current level.

  • Would there be regulatory difference between Scotland and the rump UK? Would pharmaceutical products that are legal on one side of the border be legal on the other? Are foods deemed safe on one side legal on the other side?
  • Would there be significant tax or tariff differences to cause smuggling? There is a little of that going on in the continental EU, e.g. cigarettes, but not enough to cause calls for a hard border. Just spot checks and the occasional fine. How will the trade and tariff police of the rump UK differ from the EU?


Posted 2019-04-30T21:15:33.777

Reputation: 49 884

EU free movement has nothing to do with immigration controls between the UK and Ireland, since the countries have exempted each other's citizens from immigration control for 95 years, with the exception of the period during and immediately after the second world war. These were removed in 1952, the year in which the foundations of the EU were laid, but 21 years before either country joined. The countries' shared commitment to maintaining the lack of immigration controls (which is why Ireland did not join the Schengen area) is the reason why the hard border is not an immigration issue. – phoog – 2019-05-01T15:05:45.810


It would be up to Scotland to find a solution to the border issue, given that Scotland is the one trying to change its customs arrangement and presumably set a different immigration policy to the UK.

By the time it happens the Irish border issue will probably have been resolved one way or another, even if that means a hard border with physical infrastructure. Both sides would likely try to minimize infrastructure and do as much checking away from the border as possible, and Scotland would presumably adopt the same model.

If a better solution is found (the mythical technological solution, or more like the UK remaining in a customs union with the EU) the again Scotland can just apply the same.

By being forced to resolve the Irish border issue the UK has effectively committed itself to helping Scotland resolve one of the big issues with independence too.


Posted 2019-04-30T21:15:33.777

Reputation: 16 552

1@Abigail I think a more likely solution would be keeping the entire UK in a custom union, which is what May has proposed. A customs union for NI only would probably result in it leaving the UK and joining Ireland. – user – 2019-05-01T11:43:58.923


If Scotland became independent from a no-deal UK, then there has to be a hard border. End of story.

Having a border with other countries is among the things that define an independent country. This however is relaxed if bordering countries are part of a customs union, or something similar. Yet, the default is a hard border.

Dohn Joe

Posted 2019-04-30T21:15:33.777

Reputation: 2 365

This seems to beg the question, which is whether there would be conditions (such as "a customs union, or something similar," or whatever other solution may be found for the Irish border) that would allow the relaxation of border controls on the border between Scotland and England. – phoog – 2019-05-02T14:10:42.140