One of the outcomes of December’s brexit talks (aka the brexiters surrendering to reality) was how Gibraltar managed to secure a deal with Spain. This deal saw them join not just joining the single market but also Schengen (the EU’s open travel zone, i.e. johnny foreigner can now come and go as they please), as well as surrendering control of all of their ports, airport and border to Spain.
Think about it, Gibraltar, a colony that the brexiters have threatened to go to war with a NATO ally to defend, is now so deeply embedded in the EU that while Spanish and EU citizens, like me, can show our burgundy passports and be waved through, UK citizens with their blue UK passports (made in Poland) will have to queue in the 3rd country lane, fill in landing cards and customs declarations and be asked by Spanish border guards (in Spanish one assumes) about their business and reasons for visiting a British colony. And that’s if they aren’t turned around and told to go home, as is the case right now due to covid restrictions (UK and non-EU citizens are essentially bared from travel to the EU until the covid crisis is over unless they have an essential reason to travel).
Now you’d be forgiven for thinking the Tories would be up in arms about this. But actually no, they are cool with it, no complaints from London, lets talk about fish….actually second thoughts let’s talk about unicorns instead. Perhaps because they understand that their crappy brexit deal left Gibraltar with the choice between doing a deal with Spain or breaking with London altogether.
Of course it raises the question, well if Northern Ireland and Gibraltar can stay in the EU’s economic area, or indeed stay within Schengen (which is sort of EU+), why can’t Scotland? After all it would be good for Scotland, given its high value exports (Scotch whisky, Smoked salmon, Angus steaks, banking, etc.) and it would be good for the rest of the UK, as businesses could set up in Scotland (rather than in Ireland) and benefit from its easy access to the EU single market (paying their taxes to the UK exchequer).
Also it makes the NI protocol more likely to work long term. The issue with supplies right now in NI is that its a very small place. And its questionable how long it can survive by itself. Take for example UK supermarkets in NI, They now have to produce food and other items for NI separately in NI and label it appropriately or else move production to Southern Ireland. Many simply won’t do that as it doesn’t make any economic sense. However, add 8 million Scottish customers into the mix and it becomes a viable proposition, particularly when you consider that Scotland produces a lot of the ingredients that go into those food items itself.
But of course no matter how good an idea this is, Westminster won’t agree to it. For England’s relationship with Scotland (or NI and Wales) can be equated with that of an abusive and controlling partner. Maintaining their power over Scotland is the primary goal, even if it means sacrificing Scotland’s freedom, their joint prosperity and likely laying the seeds for the day the Scots make a bolt for the door and do anything to get out of this toxic relationship.
But won’t it mean customs checks at the Scottish/English border? Well yes and no. Goods destined for the Island of Ireland and the rest of the EU could just be waved through (ironically an electronic border would work well in this regard), as it would be more a matter of spot checks at Dover just in case someone pulled a fast one while the truck passed through England (e.g. loaded it up with Chlorinated Chicken and other items banned in the EU). Of course if there is a direct ferry link from Scotland to the EU (much like there now is from Ireland) then those checks can be bypassed completely.
For goods being exported to England from Scotland/NI checks need only be applied if there are items banned in the EU which England allows the sale of (again Chlorinated chicken or US made Cornish pasties and Scot Whisky) or visa versa (e.g. a US trade deal will likely require drugs be restricted to the price gouging US versions, while Scotland/NI will keep access to low cost medicine). Also, given how dependant the UK is on goods brought in from the EU (which includes most of its food), such border controls will apply anyway to Scotland (just down at Dover instead). The whole point of being in the customs union would be to remove or limit the scale of these checks and the billions in economic damage to Scotland.
In truth this is really a English problem, as its basically be a case of England imposing sanctions on itself. Now granted they are crazy enough to do more of that (after all, they just did it!). But it becomes a lot less likely if Scotland can exclude itself, as brexit is more about perceptions than facts (its not going to look so good for the English have to lose their consumer rights and pay through the nose for stuff when north of the border the Scot’s can get it for free on an NHS prescription).
In short its Tory sadopopulism at its worst. But there is a sneaky way for Scotland to get its way. Its widely expected that the SNP will top the poll in the upcoming Scottish parliamentary elections and then propose a referendum on Scottish independence.
However, I’d propose an alternative referendum. Ask two questions, the first says that Scotland should stay in the UK and attempt to join the EU customs union via a reverse Greenland option or on similar terms to NI or Gibraltar. However (and here’s the sneaky bit) there is a second question which says that if this isn’t possible (perhaps because Westminster blocks it or an EU country like Spain decides to play silly buggers), then do you wish Scotland to instead be an independent country. My guess is that given the mood right now in Scotland you could easily win a yes vote for both those questions with a reasonable majority.
This would put the cat among the pigeons down in Westminster. If they block a Customs union move, they will be triggering a constitutional crisis and essentially bouncing Holyrood into making a deceleration of independence. Now the Tories will say that’s illegal, but that doesn’t matter (who is going to arrest Nicola Sturgeon? She pays the cops salaries up here! Scot’s law remember is a different legal system from English law). It was also illegal when about half the countries on the planet declared their independence. The real question will other countries recognise it. And there’s all sorts of mischief the Scots can engage in to more or less force the English to kick them out of the union (e.g. have workers go on strike and cut off gas supplies to England, ask all taxpayers to stop paying taxes to Westminster and start paying them to Holyrood instead, printing off massive amounts of Scottish bank notes and devaluing Sterling).
Hell I could declare my house the independent republic of daryanistan and make the neighbour’s cat the king (he seems to think he is anyway!). The issue is that nobody would recognise it, the postman would refuse to show his passport and fill out a landing card when he came to deliver mail and the cops won’t recognise my diplomatic immunity when I try to buy a Main Battle Tank off Korea (for duck hunting, I swear!).
The danger for the Tories is that if it looks like they forced Scotland into an impossible position, countries might start to recognise its independence and you get a snowball effect (starts off with Ireland and a few smaller states, then some of the bigger ones until eventually someone like the US under Biden joins in) at which point the Tories are stuffed. It would be too big a gamble. They’d be better off accepting the outcome of the first question and running with that.
The same goes for EU states like Spain, they don’t want to make it easy for Scotland no (as that might encourage break away regions in their country), but they equally don’t want to give the SNP the pretext to unilaterally declare independence. It would be far better to focus on the trade negotiations.
On which point, I’m not suggesting they would be easy or quick. In much the same way the EU tried to steer the conversation in the UK/EU trade deal onto fish and goods (and away from services) the EU will do the same in any trade negotiations with Scotland. Now I doubt the SNP would be foolish enough to fall for that. But equally it will take sometime to negotiate a treaty. And much how the Tories couldn’t really afford to be patient when they knew the swivel eyed loon brigade were in a hurry (to get out of the EU so they could see their grandkids future destroyed before they died), the same is true of some SNP supporters (and as noted, the longer this goes on, the worse the economic damage).
So I’m not saying it would be easy, but it could be compromise that keeps everybody happy.