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?

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    Why 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.
    – MikeB
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 10:46
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    @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) Commented May 1, 2019 at 11:02
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    There is certainly a fair amount of trade currently with the EU, so there is a trade-off (excuse the pun) to be made somewhere.
    – MikeB
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 11:05
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    @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
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 12:27
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    @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
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 16:21

5 Answers 5


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.

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    Whether 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
    Commented Apr 30, 2019 at 21:36
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    The 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
    Commented Apr 30, 2019 at 23:40
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    @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: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_England
    – origimbo
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 0:27
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    The 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. Commented May 1, 2019 at 12:59
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    @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
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 14:48

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.

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    Even 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
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 15:17
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    @origimbo Interesting point, but I don’t want to make my answer too complicated ^^'
    – Jan
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 15:19
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    "The border between the two has been recognised commonly as a line on the ground for centuries". Unless you count Berwick... Commented May 1, 2019 at 23:07
  • 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) Commented May 2, 2019 at 9:07

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?
  • 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
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 15:05

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.

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    @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
    Commented May 1, 2019 at 11:43

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.

  • 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
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 14:10

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