Letter from Europe

Divided Islands and all things Scottish

Issue no. 2014/25

Picture above: View from Calton Hill over the city of Edinburgh (photo © Shaiith / dreamstime.com).


Just imagine, for a moment, that Scotland really does vote yes to independence next week. Scotland will then become a new nation state, bidding for a place in European league tables of size and status. We reflect on border issues and look at how Scotland stacks up against other European countries in terms of landmass and population size.

Dear fellow travellers

Just imagine, for a moment, that Scotland really does vote yes to independence next week. Scotland will then become a new nation state, bidding for a place in European league tables of size and status.

How one reckons the number of countries in Europe depends of course on where you draw the eastern boundaries of our home continent and what counts as a state. Reviewing all the countries and political entities that constitute modern Europe, we come up with a list of between 50 and 60 units.

The list includes some real tiddlers of course, such as Vatican City, Andorra, San Marino and Monaco. Ambiguities hinge on the status of territories like the Faroe Islands and the Channel Islands and whether they warrant inclusion as separate political units. We think they do, so that's why our list is closer to 60 than 50.

Scotland is not so very small

Some media have made much of Scotland's relatively small size, suggesting that with a population of just 5.3 million the new country might be overlooked in the hustle and bustle of commerce and international affairs. But Europe is a continent of small states, and an independent Scotland will rank in the upper half of any listing of European countries and territories ranked by population size.

Our lists of the states and territories which lie wholly in Europe (so excluding Russia and Turkey) show that an independent Scotland will be in 25th place in terms of population and in 20th position when those countries are ranked in terms of landmass.

Scotland outranks Ireland and Croatia in terms of both population size and landmass. The United Kingdom is presently the third most populous country in the European Union (after Germany and France who hold the top two spots). But in terms of population numbers, Italy is biting at the heels of the UK and will nudge the UK out of third place if Scotland secedes from the UK.

Sharing one island

An article last week by David Blair, Chief Foreign Correspondent of England's deeply conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper, posed the interesting thought that "if the British decide they cannot share the same small island, the rest of the world might ask if we have taken leave of our senses."

The English of course need only look west across the Irish Sea to note that the island of Ireland is divided by an international frontier. And, more widely around the world, there are many islands which are divided: New Guinea, Borneo, Hispaniola and Timor are just a few examples. Indeed, in our magazine hidden europe, we once featured a small island where the Republic of France shares a common border with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Any idea where that one might be?

Border issues

Of course, there will be a few border issues to sort out if Scotland and England go their separate paths. That's part of the routine business of international affairs. Four years after the Czech Republic and Slovakia sealed their velvet divorce, small parcels of land were exchanged between the two countries to preserve the integrity of their common border. The Russian Federation and Estonia have also recently been discussing minor territorial adjustments on their shared frontier.

The border between Scotland and England has its peculiarities, of which the most notable is the English town of Berwick-on-Tweed which is actually on the left bank of the River Tweed. Might it opt to return to the Scottish fold (for it was indeed once part of Scotland)? Or might it preserve its English status and become a haven for wealthy tax exiles from Edinburgh? The fastest trains speed from Edinburgh to Berwick in less than 40 minutes and the evidence from across Europe is that well-connected border towns have often done rather well for themselves.

Islands in the Tweed

Our eyes of course are always on details. We've noted an intriguing fragment of land on the right bank of the Tweed south of Coldstream which actually belongs to Scotland. Might that perhaps one day be swapped for Berwick-on-Tweed?

There are a number of small islands in the River Tweed which are actually bisected by the Anglo-Scottish border. The most attractive lies well downstream from Coldstream at the confluence of the River Till and the River Tweed (south-west of the delightfully named but sadly abandoned railway station at Twizel). Here, especially if the authorities could be prevailed upon to reopen the railway, there is scope for an international theme park that plays up the idea of borders.

The question will naturally arise as to how to handle the sovereignty of this island in the River Tweed. Our suggestion is to follow the example of the Ile des Faisans on the Bidassoa River on the French-Spanish border. For six months each year the island is Spanish and for the other six months it is French. Perhaps that would be a civilised way of handling territorial anomalies along the Anglo-Scottish border.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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