The big guns are arguing about the implications of Scottish independence. A physical border between the UK and Scotland could be the least of it. Introducing: rUK.
From an agreement between a few north western European countries in 1985, the open-border Schengen Agreement – named after the town in Luxembourg where it was signed – has since grown to encompass the entire EU (plus even Iceland, Norway and Switzerland).
Like adopting the Euro, Schengen is now a prerequisite for joining the club, and for good reason. The Zone facilitates the free movement of citizens, an essential part of the single market, a fundamental pillar of the whole enterprise.
It’s a grand staircase of ifs and buts, but if Scotland voted for independence, and if it had to apply for EU membership like any other country – which both European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and the UK government’s legal advice (published yesterday) says it would – our northerly neighbour might have to throw open its borders to allow hassle free travel to and from the Continent.
There would be some advantages. Scottish citizens could go on holiday without passports. Not insignificantly, Scotland would also be included in the Schengen visa. Currently, visitors from outside the EU pay £25 for a Schengen Zone visa plus another £78 if they want to come to the UK.
That’s why France gets 600,000 Chinese tourists a year, Germany 400,000 while the UK welcomes just 200,000 (2011 figures).
Assuming that what remains of the UK didn’t then sign up to Schengen – and we can be absolutely sure it wouldn‘t – potentially that means a policed border between Scotland and England. Indeed, Home Secretary Theresa May gave some credence to this possibility in March 2012.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ‘From Gretna in the Solway Firth to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the North Sea, an iron curtain will descend across the land.’
Scotland says it wants to retain Sterling and the UK opt out from Schengen. After last week’s EU budget negotiations, who knows what it could achieve in accession talks? But powerful voices in Europe wouldn’t be happy to see Scotland achieve seamless re-entry in case it encouraged their own separatist regions (Catalunya in Spain is top of a long list).
Meanwhile, what about the remains of the UK, the so-called ‘rump UK’ or to give it it’s official short-hand, rUK?
Technically, the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ – the signatory to all the EU treaties – ceases to exist. Great Britain is the island containing England, Scotland and Wales. Would rUK therefore still be a member of the EU?
The government’s legal advice says it would: ‘No weight can be put on such changes of name.’
However, it may be to rUK’s advantage to reassess the legal opinion in the event of a ‘Scexit’. It would be the ideal no-fault opportunity for Britain to re-negotiate its membership of the EU, or even leave.
Remember, the Scottish independence referendum next year means the entire issue will be done and dusted well before the much messier ‘In-Out’ EU referendum promised for 2017. Just saying.