Does news of Scotland’s independence vote make your eyelids feel heavy?
Americans may feel a yawn coming on when told of a political squabble playing out in a distant land less populated than metro Atlanta.
But economists say this Thursday’s vote is no snoozer. You may wake up to find its outcome has triggered another global financial upheaval.
To understand the risks to your economic health, let’s first review a couple of basics:
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make up the United Kingdom. Scotland has its own legal system and lots of political autonomy, but the British government in London controls taxes, defense, international relations and more.
Now Scots will vote on whether to continue that very close relationship. The Scottish National Party is pushing for independence by early 2016.
The independence movement has the support of some of Scotland’s business leaders. For example, manufacturing entrepreneur Ivan McKee says that if his country were to go it alone, it could cut corporate taxes, lower aviation taxes and “export Brand Scotland around the world.”
But opponents say that after three centuries of doing business as part of the U.K., the economic downsides of a breakup would be enormous. For example, both the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Bank promise to move their headquarters to London if Scotland were to exit the U.K. And it’s unclear whether Scotland would be able to keep using the British pound and automatically remain a member of the European Union.
Deutsche Bank says the swirl of uncertainty could “easily derail the U.K. economic recovery.”
Here’s the part where it could matter to American wallets:
If Scotland were to leave the U.K., many analysts fear it ultimately could destabilize the European Union, an economic and political union established among 28 countries. The EU, with the United Kingdom embedded inside it, is a key U.S. economic partner, buying nearly a half-trillion dollars’ worth of U.S. exports each year.
President Obama wants to keep Scotland tucked safely inside the U.K., saying the United States has “a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies we will ever have remains a strong, robust, united and effective partner.”
Nile Gardiner, a foreign affairs analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, agrees with Obama, saying Scottish independence could trigger “significant turmoil” on Wall Street.
“Fears over the economic fallout from Scotland breaking off from the U.K. will spook U.S. markets, frighten investors, and add to an air of uncertainty exacerbated in recent months by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Gardiner wrote in an assessment.
Most economists say that growth — no matter in what region of the world — is enhanced by having a single, large trading space where people and goods and capital can flow freely. The United States has a gigantic free-trade zone, from Maine to Hawaii, and from Canada down through Mexico under NAFTA.
And thanks to the EU’s common market, Europeans enjoy a similar immense space stretching from the U.K. to Italy to Poland, making trade there much more efficient.
Opponents of Scotland’s independence fear a YES vote would give rise to a nationalistic fever that could weaken the EU.
Already, many British political leaders are pushing for a referendum by 2017 to decide whether the U.K. will remain in the EU. And just last week, hundreds of thousands of voters in the Catalan region of Spain held a secessionist demonstration, demanding a breakaway. Flemish nationalists want out of Belgium, and so on.
“Separatist movements across Europe would gain encouragement from Scotland’s bold move, which could inject further uncertainty into Europe’s already fragmenting political landscape,” Desmond Lachman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in an assessment.
Under that scenario, the EU, stitched together by treaties signed over decades, could fray and fall apart. It would become much harder for U.S. business interests, from General Electric to California almond growers, to work with an ever-widening collection of small European countries with varying trade rules.
Despite economists’ warnings, the independence movement has considerable strength. Supporters have made a video calling for decisions to be made “by the people who care the most about Scotland — the people who live here.”
Polls results are mixed, leaving Thursday’s outcome a tossup.