Scottish passports and immigration

1st Aug 2014

  • The Scottish government intends to remain part of the Common Travel Area (CTA), an agreement which allows free travel across internal borders such as the one between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. The UK government has responded that Scotland's plans for more liberal migration policies could be a barrier to them remaining part of this area.
  • Scotland may instead be forced to join the Schengen area (a European passport-free zone), as a condition of EU membership.
  • If Scotland has to become part of the Schengen area, and the rest of the UK remains in the CTA, this could create an international-style border between Scotland and the rest of the UK with the possibility of passport controls.

Much depends on whether Scotland is part of the Schengen Area or Common Travel Area

Currently the UK, Republic of Ireland, Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands operate as a Common Travel Area (CTA) which allows the free travel of British and Irish citizens across internal borders without immigration controls.

The Scottish government proposes that an independent Scotland remain part of the CTA. But, if Scotland successfully joins the European Union as an independent member state they may be forced under current EU law to become part of the Schengen area; a passport-free zone comprising 22 EU member states and 4 non-EU European countries (Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland).

Schengen area

The UK and Republic of Ireland opted-out of the Schengen agreement in 1997, but the UK government says this opt-out would not be automatically extended to Scotland. Scotland would have to negotiate its exclusion from Schengen with the EU, and if successful, it would also have to negotiate its continued membership of the CTA with the rest of the UK and Republic of Ireland. It would not be possible for Scotland to be a member of both the Schengen area and the CTA simultaneously.

The UK government has stated that Scotland's continued membership of the CTA would likely depend on it agreeing to align its visa and migration policies with the other CTA members. Similarly, if Scotland decided to join the Schengen area, this would be subject to it agreeing to align its migration policy with EU requirements. The Scottish government has expressed its intention to implement a more open immigration policy than the rest of the UK.

Professor Robert Wright from the University of Strathclyde suggests that an independent Scotland would have greater autonomy and flexibility over its migration policy as part of the Schengen area than as part of the CTA. According to Professor Wright:

"EU legislation is concerned with refugees and asylum seekers, which are not likely to be numerically important in an independent Scotland. Likewise, EU legislation says little about how economic migrants and students should be selected; two groups that will be extremely important both numerically and economically to an independent Scotland. There is broad consensus amongst political parties in Scotland that the current UK-wide immigration system (and recent UK-wide immigration policy) is not serving Scottish interests."

Border controls are a possibility

The possibility of border controls between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK hangs on a lot of 'ifs', which will only be negotiated in the event of a yes vote in the referendum.

If an independent Scotland did join the Schengen area, its borders with the remaining CTA could change from "internal borders" to "external borders", meaning that people crossing the border would be subject to travel document checks by border guards at set checkpoints.

As a result, politicians such as Theresa May have suggested that UK citizens would need a passport to go to Scotland. But, if Scotland joins the Schengen area, the UK government could arguably be put under considerable pressure to join as well, particularly "if maintaining UK-Schengen border controls at the UK-Scottish borders led to significant costs and disruption".

In turn, if this did happen, this would effectively dissolve the CTA agreement that exists between the UK and Ireland - so Ireland could then choose to join Schengen as well.

Under negotiation: who'll get a Scottish passport and what they'll be entitled to

The Scottish government has proposed an "inclusive model of citizenship" for: British citizens living in Scotland, Scottish-born British citizens living outside Scotland, people with Scottish parents or grandparents, and people who have lived in Scotland for at least ten years at some point in their life.

The rest of the UK will decide whether Scottish citizens will be entitled to dual UK and Scottish citizenship, according to the Scottish government. Currently, the UK does not have many restrictions on British nationals having the citizenship of one or more countries.

The Scottish government says that Scottish citizens will be eligible to apply for a Scottish passport from the first day of independence and that the passports will be valid for international travel in the same way that UK passports are now. It is planned that the Scottish passport will follow the EU passport model, and would look much like the current UK one in colour, size and layout.

The UK government says that Scotland will not inherit the visa-waiver agreements that apply to British passports. According to the Visa Restrictions Index, these allow visa-free travel to 173 countries. The Scottish government would have to negotiate similar agreements from scratch.

In addition to passports, governments have to determine the consular services their citizens have access to abroad. The Scottish government proposes a network of between 70 and 90 overseas offices for an independent Scotland, with running costs of £90 to £120 million. This figure is said to be below Scotland's population share of UK overseas representation for 2016/2017.