Exit: the EU’s unfortunate taboo

When the EU was founded, its treaties were declared valid for an unlimited period. The desire to make European integration permanent and irreversible helps explain why the bloc’s founders did not create a proper procedure for member states to leave. Leaving was supposed to become unthinkable: in the course of integration, states would be broken down, and a new entity – perhaps a Europe of interdependent regions – would take their place.

Today, this kind of talk has dried up. With the EU lurching from crisis to crisis, one thing has become clear: European integration will continue for an “unlimited period” only in the sense that there is no firm date for its expiry. Far from being broken down, the member states are showing their vitality by obstructing further cooperation. And the question about how to leave the Eurozone, the Schengen Area, the EU itself, is becoming almost mainstream.

The reasons for all this talk about withdrawal are not hard to identify. Faced with international competition from tricky characters like China and Russia, the publics of big member states in particular wonder why they belong to an organisation that seems geared towards reducing their room for manoeuvre. A series of poorly thought out political projects has only stretched their patience.

Yet, the big members are not the only ones talked of as candidates for leaving. Fired up by the idea of Europe of the regions, a number of the EU’s sub-national areas aspire to “independence in Europe” – independence from the mother-state, under the protective umbrella of EU membership. Funnily enough though, if a region were actually to attain independence it might well have to leave the EU.

It is a vexed point, but legal wonks suggest that EU membership would not automatically extend to a newly-independent country. The existing EU members could well insist on it withdrawing, if only to make it apply for re-entry. After all, many EU members have separatist movements of their own to contend with, and would be terrified of “independence in Europe” becoming the norm.

Commentators have been warning of such developments for years; but they have largely missed the irony: had the EU faced up earlier to the possibility of member states leaving, it could actually have nurtured integration. This is because a withdrawal clause can be a boon to cooperation. A well-formulated withdrawal clause can reduce the incidence of withdrawal.

If there is clarity about the rights and duties entailed by leaving, for example, governments are forced into a more active commitment to cooperation. They can’t pretend to their voters that they are trapped in an arrangement against their will (as most Eurozone capitals seem to do these days). And they cannot petulantly threaten withdrawal (as Italy did in response to the recent Schengen crisis).

Moreover, clarity about how to leave a union can give governments the leverage they need to block excessive centralisation, to avoid marginalization in the negotiations that matter to them most, as well as to prevent serial exploitation at the hands of their partners. Such problems are at the root of the EU’s current crises.

It is unfortunate therefore that, insofar as the bloc has dared formulate exit rules, it has viewed these as a liability rather than a boon: the EU prays the exit rules will never be used, rather than drawing them up in such a way that they never have to be. It is no surprise that Article 50, the general withdrawal clause included in the Lisbon Treaty, manages to leave the two key questions open: how would a withdrawal procedure work and what status would a country enjoy after it had left?

As a result, Article 50 strengthens big member states by giving them the power to bully their way out of the EU. And it allows all member states to interfere in one another’s internal affairs and to threaten breakaway regions with EU exclusion if they dare move towards independence.

This is a sour end for the old dream of Europe of the regions. But it is the logical outcome for a mode of cooperation which has too often preferred wishful thinking to imaginatively exploiting tricky realities.