Brexit and the Covid-19 crisis have the potential to help an independent Scotland adopt the best immigration policy. However, it is too early to estimate the effects of these two events. Moreover, in defining and determining Scotland’s options (such as how to manage the border with the UK and how to choose Scotland’s immigration system so that Scots can travel and reside freely in both the UK and the EU) and obtaining the right to leave the Schengen area is of crucial importance. Without getting the right to leave the Schengen area, it becomes challenging to develop appropriate schemes.
Covid-19 and Immigration
The covid-19 pandemic has entirely or partially shut down global mobility with the closure of borders and strict movement and air travel restrictions. However, there have been recent openings in this area. Rising unemployment worldwide, border closures, the uncertain situation of universities and international students, xenophobia and the plight of workers and asylum-seekers in camps are among the hardships and problems that immigrants have faced in the three areas of economic and labour migration, student migration and asylum.
However, Kyambi (2021) stated in Scotland’s new choice: Independence after Brexit, it is too early to tell how the Covid-19 crisis will impact migration and the policies seeking to direct it in Scotland. Much will depend on the size and shape of the economic recovery, particularly the labour market. The Migration Data Portal assessment (2020) notes that ‘migrants – particularly in lower-paid jobs – may be more affected by and vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19. Migrants also play an important role in the response to Covid-19 by working in critical sectors.’ The Scottish government’s view on how best to respond to the migration-related aspects of Covid-19 is less restrictive than that of the UK government.
Migration Under the Hammer of Tories
With Brexit, it has become more plausible to argue that there will be a need for some form of border control between Scotland and the UK. (Kyambi, 2021, in Scotland’s new choice: Independence after Brexit).
The UK government has proposed substantial immigration reforms to be rolled out after Brexit. Visa controls will be expanded to cover European nationals and people from outside Europe once free movement has ended, introducing new rules both for migrants and for companies who need to recruit workers from overseas. Scotland is more reliant on immigration than the rest of the UK to maintain population growth and support the national economy. The Scottish government has long argued that Scotland should have specific powers to set its immigration policies. As a Scottish government paper stated in 2018: “Even with current free movement of people between Scotland and the rest of the EU, it is clear that UK policy on migration does not meet Scotland’s needs” (Fragomen, 2020).
Scotland’s Willingness for an Open Immigration System
Regarding the future immigration system in Scotland, the Scottish government has consistently indicated in its proposals that it is willing to adopt a more open approach. Suggestions and articles on immigration place less emphasis on selection and more focus on lowering income and skills thresholds for more labour immigration. In this regard, the role of immigration in counteracting the declining population, preserving remote locations, and protecting migrants have been consistently emphasised. According to , Scotland has a well-earned reputation for providing a hot and open welcome to everyone who chooses to come here. This welcome is so good that some never want to leave.
As stated in the Fragomen (2020), reinforcing the view in ‘Migration: helping Scotland prosper’ which argued: “Freedom of movement has had a positive impact on Scotland, but the current immigration system for international migration is not meeting the needs of Scotland’s communities and employers.” The Scottish government has long argued that Scotland should have specific powers to set its immigration policies. When the country faces a different set of challenges, Scottish ministers argue that such capabilities would allow the government to identify its own distinct set of economic and social needs and implement immigration plans that could best help meet them.
According to the LSE, Scotland set out its proposals for a post-Brexit migration regime, but they have been rejected. Sarah Kyambi (Migration Policy Scotland) explains how Holyrood hoped to attract migrants to areas suffering from depopulation and why the Home Office’s proposed salary threshold will make it particularly hard to encourage people to migrate to Scotland. The Scottish proposals tried to develop a more cohesive approach to migration, in line with the principles of dignity, fairness and respect to which the Scottish government aspires generally. The main thrust was towards an immigration system better tailored to address the needs of Scotland, both economically and socially. It stands in marked contrast to the proposed UK points-based system – the main feature is the almost complete restriction of immigration into lower-paid work.
Scotland’s Right to Leave the Schengen Area
An independent Scottish state joining the Schengen area would have to control movement across the parts of Schengen’s external border for which it would be responsible. The most precise illustration of this is that an independent Scottish state would be required to establish a land, sea and air border with the UK, which is not a Schengen member. Controls on the movement of people would add both direct and indirect costs to the economies of both an independent Scottish state and the UK. As part of the UK, Scotland currently benefits from the Common Travel Area (CTA) membership. In the event of an independence vote, Scotland would leave the UK and therefore leave the CTA.
To apply to join the CTA, Scotland would have to negotiate an opt-out from membership in the Schengen area. The UK, the Republic of Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man collaborate on border policies and practices as part of the CTA. There are no routine immigration checks on passenger travel within the CTA, and passengers are not required to carry a passport or national identity document for immigration purposes. The current Scottish government has indicated that it would want an independent Scottish state to join the CTA. Membership, however, would need to be negotiated with the UK and all existing CTA members (HM Government).
A paper by Darryn Nyatanga in LSE argues that no precedence currently exists whereby an EU prospective member state has managed to negotiate opt-outs from major EU policy areas. EU-Scotland Cooperation would arguably be one of the biggest hurdles Scotland would face during the negotiation process. Such opt-outs would include those that the UK enjoyed as an EU member state, i.e. the Economic and Monetary Union and the Schengen zone. The paper adds about the latter, opting out of the Schengen zone in favour of the continued participation in the Common Travel Area (CTA) would be more desirable for Scotland, based on many economic, cultural, and political reasons. As a result, Scotland would need to first opt-out of the Schengen zone during its accession negotiations and secure continued CTA participation.