LAST weekend, the Sunday National exclusively reported that plans will be put forward at the SNP conference to establish an expert group to examine how the border with the rest of the UK will work for an independent Scotland.

I welcome the renewed impetus to set up such a body. After backstage discussions at the SNP conference in spring 2019 it was agreed I would chair a committee to look at the implications of Brexit for the England/Scotland border, after an independent Scotland rejoins the EU.

My plan was to take evidence from a variety of people and bodies and then draw up a paper which would inform party policy for the next independence referendum so that party spokespersons and activists could have answers to the questions on this topic posed so often by journalists and members of the public. Despite prompting, this project never got off the ground. I hope that if conference passes this motion the resources and wherewithal will be found to make it happen.

Brexit and the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU have created hard borders between Scotland and the EU. Free movement of people has gone and the TCA is a basic trade deal which eliminates customs tariffs on goods provided they meet certain rules regarding their origin, but does little to reduce non-tariff barriers such as the specialist paperwork necessitated by the EU’s strict rules on animal and plant health (sanitary and phytosanitary requirements).

This is what has caused such disruption to freight and the seafood industry since Brexit happened. When Scotland rejoins the EU, the hard borders which Brexit and the TCA have created with the EU will go but we will trade with England and Wales on the same terms as other EU states meaning new checks and processes will be required on trade across the Anglo-Scottish border. Given the current high volume of trade between Scotland and England this could be disruptive. The question is to what extent can the risk of a hard border between an independent Scotland and rUK be avoided?

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There is a huge body of expert opinion and advice to draw upon in answering this question. SNP MPs, particularly those of us who sat on the Brexit Select Committee, the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU and the International Trade Select Committee, have amassed a significant amount of learning on how borders work not just in Europe but across the world.

Making use of this knowledge base in preparation for independence is exactly the sort of preparatory work in which SNP MPs should be engaged. Such work will contribute far more to the cause of independence than speeches which fall on deaf ears and work on parliamentary initiatives which have no hope in the face of the Tory majority delivered at the December 2019 General Election.

While it is very important that SNP MPs carry out our parliamentary duties on behalf of constituents, our efforts as a political group could be better employed.

There is a further significant body of independent opinion on the border issue to draw on thanks to the work of Dr Kirsty Hughes and the sadly now defunct Scottish Centre for European Relations (SCER) and others. In March 2020, SCER published a report entitled An Independent Scotland in the EU: Issues for Accession, which brought together 15 expert views on what an independent Scotland’s accession process to the EU might look like and the implications of independence in the EU while the rUK remained outside it.

Chapters written by an expert on the Northern Ireland Brexit border issue and professors of EU law and Economics look at the implications of the Scotland-rUK border for the movement of people, goods trade and Scotland’s economy.

This report predates the TCA, however SCER and Dr Hughes have published extensive further commentary on the implications of that agreement.

Another useful resource published after the TCA in March 2021, by Edinburgh University’s Centre on Constitutional Change, is Scotland’s New Choice: Independence after Brexit. Edited by Eve Hepburn, Michael Keating and Nicola McEwen, this book includes chapters on the economy, international trade, currency options, immigration, EU membership and interdependence.

In the same month, the Institute for Government published a report called Scottish Independence; EU Membership and the Anglo-Scottish Border.

All these publications are available online.

A degree of consensus about the issues emerges. The free movement of people across the Anglo-Scottish border could be addressed by Scotland opting out of the Schengen zone and staying within the Common Travel area which covers Great Britain and Ireland.

Goods trade is more problematic. But trade frictions would harm rUK exporters as much as Scottish exporters so there would be strong incentives on both sides to reduce them as much as possible.

Scotland is likely to want to improve infrastructure to facilitate direct routes to mainland Europe avoiding the need to travel through England to the continent. Likewise, Scotland will want to increase the volume of its trade with other EU countries, as Ireland has done since its EU accession in 1973, but this won’t happen overnight.

Trade in services is important because both Scotland and the rUK are service-dominated economies. The EU single market in services – unlike goods – is far from complete and there would therefore be scope for Scotland and rUK to agree sectoral deals on services and to grant each other’s citizens favourable visa terms.

So, the border between an independent Scotland and rUK need not be the hard border some have predicted. Talk of a Great Wall of Gretna is ridiculous. Scots are likely to have the best of both worlds with free movement of persons across the EU and rUK but we need to address the issue of customs and regulatory checks for goods.

The conference motion seems to envisage that any Borders Commission should also consider the potential benefits of Efta/EEA membership. This would mean membership of EFTA and the single market but not the customs union, thus opening up the possibility of separate deals on fisheries and agriculture.

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The Alba Party has suggested that if Scotland joined Efta and the EEA and stayed in a customs union with the UK, the chances of a hard border between Scotland and England would be diminished.

However, this policy choice would mean both a customs border with the EU and a regulatory border with rUK. Furthermore, members of Efta are obliged to try to join the existing Efta free trade agreements with third parties which would not be possible if Scotland remained in a customs union with the rUK.

Besides, if we did, Scotland would be obliged to follow the trade policy of the rUK which would hamper our efforts to distance ourselves from Brexit Britain.

So, the Efta/EEA solution is not the silver bullet that is sometimes suggested, particularly as it is clear from the TCA that even outwith the Common Fisheries Policy an independent Scotland will struggle to secure the sort of deals on fisheries that were promised in the event of Brexit but have failed to materialise.

This is just a flavour of the serious issues to be grappled with. Our job in the SNP is to endeavour to find solutions. It won’t be easy but there is a wealth of expertise to draw on and the hard work needs to start without further delay.