What’s the Big Deal with Borders?

page4_1A few days ago George Osborne made one of his infrequent ventures north of the border to lecture us Scots on how damaging independence will be for us. The main subject this time was borders, or to be precise, the result of creating an international boundary between Scotland and England. The headline finding is that the average household will be £2,000 worse off in an independent Scotland than it would be if trade, capital and labour flows continued in the United Kingdom as it is. Now this is a pretty ludicrous and meaningless figure. Nowhere does Mr Osborne provide any evidence as to why trade, capital and labour flows would significantly change just because Scotland became independent. The attempts at international comparisons are far removed from the reality of Scottish – English trade. The experiences of Canada and the USA; Austria and Germany and the Czech Republic and Slovakia bear so little relation to the current situation in Scotland as to make them irrelevant. Even BBC Scotland’s Business and economy editor, Douglas Fraser, felt compelled to write that: “In short, there are assumptions built into this economic modelling by the Treasury which require a dose of freely traded salt.”

It is not at all clear why George Osborne and his Unionist colleagues and cheer leaders in the media have this obsession with borders. Other that is, than to issue yet more unsubstantiated scare stories. All countries have borders and yet international trade, capital and blabour flows have increased substantially since the end of the Second World War. In Europe in particular there has been a steady growth in international trade etc. Even though there are now more borders than before. So borders cannot simply be written off as all bad.

The most interesting case is probably Switzerland. With four international borders to contend with, Switzerland by Mr Osborne’s reasoning, should be one of the poorest countries in Europe. Instead it is one of the richest despite its four international borders. It is not as if these borders were high mountains or other impassable features. Most of the border between Switzerland and Italy, France, Germany and Austria is more or less completely flat and shows no distinguishing features. For centuries the Swiss have successfully traded across all four borders and have developed a very successful economy to boot.

A particular case in point is the Swiss city of Basel, which not only has one international border to contend with, but has two – the Swiss-German and the Swiss-French. Just how do they manage? To make matters even more confusing the Baslers don’t even have their own airport. They have to share one with the French city of Mulhouse. The airport is located in France. How dreadful! Even worse, one of the city’s major train stations is German – the Badische Bahnhof, which is the terminus for German state railways. The other main station is a joint French and Swiss station. The Basel Regional S-Bahn, the commuter rail network connecting suburbs surrounding the city, is jointly operated by the Swiss, German and French railways. Oh how complicated all this must be. Worries about foreign interference and currency uncertainties. It simply beggars belief that with all these problems Basel is one of the richest places in Switzerland. It is also home to many of the world’s most famous chemical companies, such as Novartis and Hoffmann-LaRoche. Borders and currency exchanges do not seem to bother them. What is perhaps even more relevant for Scotland is that the three countries around Basel have used their differences as a marketing tool to promote the whole area. Sometimes known as Dreiländereck in German or as The TriRhena region. It even has its own tourist website, which you can visit here.

The message could not be clearer – borders do not need to be a barrier to trade, capital or labour flows as Basel in particular and Switzerland in general show. Why should the Scottish-English border be any different? Why would patterns of trade that have developed over centuries suddenly cease? Especially when the SNP has indicated that it wants to maintain the existing currency union with the rest of the UK. With goodwill on both sides there is nothing in the experience of Switzerland and the rest of Europe to suggest that Scottish independence would lead to damaging economic consequences.

The key here is goodwill on both sides. The SNP and other pro-independence parties have clearly indicated a willingness to co-operate with the rest of the UK in a spirit of friendship and goodwill. It is only representatives of the UK government and Unionists who have called into question the willingness of the UK to co-operate with an independent Scotland. In the interests of clarity we should be told the truth. Will the rest of the UK work with an independent Scotland in a spirit of friendship and goodwill? As it already does with the Republic of Ireland. If the answer is yes, then there is nothing to worry about. On the other hand if the answer is no, then why would Scotland want to remain in a Union with people who want to treat us as enemies?

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