An objection to Welsh independence, which is commonly rolled out by its opponents, is the high degree of integration between the Welsh and English economies. Nowhere is this more in evidence than up here in the North East, where the border runs straight down the middle of Llanymynech High Street, swishes back and forth either side of the Dee around Wrexham and cuts straight through the suburbs of Chester at Saltney, before making a final lunge over the Dee, taking in a chunk of the Wirral and ending at a sandbank in the Dee Estuary. Along the way it is crossed by several main roads and dozens (possibly hundreds – I haven’t counted them) of minor roads and country lanes, used by tens of thousands of people and millions of pounds’ worth of goods every day. ‘Surely,’ say the detractors, ‘it would be madness to place border crossings along all these roads and strangle the multi-million pound cross-border economy’. Indeed, our esteemed Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns regards this as the ace up his sleeve, the preeminent argument for the Union.
Tales from a border life
I make no secret of the fact that I live on the English side of the border in Shropshire, though you’d scarcely know it from the amount of Welsh you hear spoken in Shrewsbury town centre and the prevalence of Welsh house names and street names – our house was already called ‘Bryn Teg’ before we bought it. For the last thirteen years I’ve been living here, working in Wales, and crossing the border every day; a dozen times a week if you include visiting my parents at the weekend. Not only that, but when I worked as Business Development Manager for an engineering company in Welshpool (where fully a third of the staff crossed the border daily) I enthusiastically signed the company up to the Mersey Dee Alliance so that we could seek customers in Cheshire and Merseyside. Now that I’m busy hiring staff for a software technology centre in Wrexham, it’s a foregone conclusion that a high proportion of the staff – very possibly the majority – will come from over the border, and quite likely that I’ll need to hire at least one non-EU national to get the team up to full strength (though I still have vacancies and welcome applicants from Wales – https://g.co/kgs/nPUf9t).
No-one wants to see a “hard border” between Wales and England less than I do.
The importance of learning from others
So wouldn’t it be great if we could learn something from other places in the world where there are urban borders with high cross-border traffic, to see how they manage the situation? Fortunately it’s not hard to find examples. Perhaps the most famous is Baarle-Nassau on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, where the border zigzags right through homes and businesses with enclaves on either side of the border (i.e. bits of Belgium wholly surrounded by the Netherlands, and vice versa), and enclaves-within-enclaves. Granted, the fact that both countries are within the EU and the Schengen zone today renders that particular border almost meaningless, but they nevertheless managed just fine without a hard border there between the time that Belgium became independent from the Netherlands in 1830 and when they both joined the European Coal and Steel Community (the forerunner of the EU) in 1951.
But the example I find much more interesting is the border between the US and Canada, one that I myself have crossed many times on business and leisure travel. Over most of its 5,525 mile length it is entirely rural, but between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario it runs right through the middle of a metropolitan area containing a million people, with a highly integrated cross-border economy. A high proportion of the 300,000 people who travel back and forth between Canada and the US for work every day (compared to the 130,000 people who cross between Wales and England) do so here, and the large Chrysler assembly plant and two Ford engine factories in Windsor have their supply chains closely tied to their parent companies on the US side of the border.
Yet these are countries who have never been part of any Union (at least since 1776 – and they’ve been at war twice since then), and the economic integration far pre-dates the signing of NAFTA in 1994. It’s quite clear the the border has never been cited as an excuse to hinder cross-border trade and investment, and clearer still that the large amount of cross-border trade and investment has not been cited as a reason for closer political union between the two countries. Indeed, under Trump and Trudeau the US and Canada are on quite different paths, but life at the border goes on.
So it’s entirely possible to strongly advocate independence for Wales (as I do) while equally strongly advocating a vigorous cross-border economy (as I do). The only people who see a contradiction there are the ones who can’t see beyond the ends of their own noses, and are oblivious to what goes on every day in the rest of the world. Yet people say that we’re the inward looking parochialists. Sheesh! As they’d say on either side of the Detroit River, “go figure…”