EU treaties declare themselves valid for an ‘unlimited period’. In a previous, sunnier age, this was interpreted to mean that the EU and the process of ever-closer European integration were permanent fixtures. That interpretation now has more than a whiff of hubris about it. It’s not just that political integration has stumbled in the wake of recent financial and immigration crises. Back in 2009 the EU’s Lisbon Treaty gave member states scope to make their disgruntlement felt in a fairly fundamental way. It set a landmark precedent by giving member governments an explicit right to EU-withdrawal (Article 50). Two years later, it seems European integration is to be ‘unlimited’ only in the sense that there is no fixed date for it to stop.
Most EU governments still downplay this explicit right to secession of course. They agreed to the article in a bid to sell a new treaty to grouchy electorates. With the new treaty ratified, they have been in no hurry to mention Article 50 again. Already knee-deep in European crises, the very thought of a secession fills the bloc’s remaining pro-European governments with gloom. Even EU governments of a more eurosceptic bent have avoided drawing attention to Article 50. They are scared stiff of encouraging popular pressure for withdrawal and of landing themselves in a tricky situation. Article 50 is viewed by governments as yet another problem, not as the solution.
The inevitable result of this lack of discussion is a ticking time-bomb - a poorly-worded article with lashings of conflict potential. This article laying down the procedures applying to withdrawal somehow contrives to leave the procedures applying to the withdrawal unclear. It contains, for example, no guidelines about the relationship between the EU and a state which has left. There is no clarity about whether a seceding state will be liable for costs to the EU arising from withdrawal. And it is unclear if a member state could reverse its application to leave in mid-process, perhaps following a change of government.
Indeed, Article 50 sketches out just a few very basic guidelines. It gives member states an explicit right to withdrawal, but this right is not unfettered: states are obliged to negotiate with the EU their withdrawal; the seceding member state must also respect its own constitution when seceding; moreover, the state in question will not be able to vote in the Council of Ministers on any secession settlement, although the European Parliament, and thus presumably MEPs from the seceding state, will; only if there is no agreement on the terms of withdrawal after two years, will the EU treaties simply cease to apply to that state.
The need for clarity
The sparsity of this wording is problematic because withdrawal is an acrimonious process. In the EU’s history there has been only one withdrawal, that of Greenland in the 1980s. Back then, the Danish government did everything it could to smooth relations between Nuuk and Brussels. Other EU governments also tiptoed about, fearful of incurring criticism for ‘neo-colonialism’ if they stood in the way of Greenland’s wishes. And nevertheless, negotiations surrounding this territory of just 55,000 people were often heated. Imagine, then, if a government of a large and robust member state today initiated withdrawal proceedings.
Since Article 50 does not seem to reduce a seceding state’s usual voting powers whilst withdrawal negotiations are running, a large government with considerable weight could disrupt everyday Council business in order to cajole its partners into a favourable outcome on its secession. Members of the European Parliament from a large seceding country could also be disruptive in everyday business - as well, presumably, as voting favourably in the parliamentary debate on the withdrawal settlement. Moreover, the large seceding government could simply play for time if it felt it was not getting a sympathetic hearing: two years after initiating the withdrawal process, the EU treaties would simply cease to apply to it, settlement or no settlement.
For a small seceding member state, the process could prove just as acrimonious, but this time the boot would be on the other foot. A small state’s erstwhile partners would be prepared to bully it out of withdrawal. After all, in the absence of guidance from Article 50, the withdrawal of a state would trigger arguments about how to redistribute voting powers and to adapt the EU’s institutions once a state had left, leading to new waves of treaty change and referendums. This is something no EU member relishes. The other EU states would have ample means of making withdrawal unattractive. There is no clarity about a seceding state’s status once outside the EU, meaning that remaining members could offer a punitive settlement. Article 50 also establishes that a state must adhere to its own constitutional law when withdrawing. It would be tempting for other member governments to take it to the European Court claiming this has not occurred.
Governments are loath to open this Pandora’s Box and start clarifying things. Not only would such efforts to ‘facilitate secession’ send an odd political message to the outside world just as the EU is trying to calm the international markets, it would also stir up national voters. Despite its famous love of clear rules, even Germany is against such moves. It is amongst the staunchest supporters of EU integration, and is deeply troubled by the emergence of populist, eurosceptic forces in other member states. It wants nothing to do with the withdrawal clause. And yet, there is a strong political rationale for Berlin not only to clarify these procedures, but also to formulate a withdrawal strategy of its own.
Germany’s European bind
Germany currently finds itself in a bind. In the wake of the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargements, sizeable disparities in wealth and regulatory capacity have become clear. It is not the inevitable transfer of cash and resources to the new members which bothers Berlin though - it is its lack of control over the way that the new members use the resources they receive. All EU member states find themselves dependent upon one another in highly sensitive areas such as finance and economic policy, immigration and policing. But precisely because these policy areas are so sensitive, governments have chosen to rely upon mutual trust rather than draw up robust common laws and bodies. It leaves Germany exposed to regulatory failures in the new member states but unable properly to influence their policies let alone the use made of any transfers of operational and financial resources.
Last year for example these issues became a considerable source of tension in the Schengen Area, the passport-free travel zone within the EU. EU member states do not automatically become Schengen members when they join the Union, and instead have to satisfy demanding technical standards. Germany, one of the founding Schengen states, knows that as soon as countries join, however, it will lose its only remaining leverage over their behaviour. As a result, Berlin has blocked the accession of Romania and Bulgaria for the time being, seeking to exert leverage over the pair to improve a whole range of policies. It’s messy and untenable and it’s making Germany rather unpopular. Moreover, this dynamic is playing out in a whole range of EU policies.
How does Berlin increase its control of delinquent member states without giving up sensitive national powers to central EU bodies which are anyway notoriously timid when it comes to discipline? How does Germany ensure that its commitment to the EU does not encourage its exploitation? The answer is straightforward. Germany must persuade other states that its commitment to the EU is not absolute, and that they must work hard to keep it on board across the whole range of EU policy fields. In order to communicate the fact that resource-transfers come with certain responsibilities attached, Germany must be prepared to formulate a convincing strategy of withdrawal from the EU.
This is a taboo in German politics where a pro-European consensus reigns and the right of secession is viewed as antithetical to healthy union. This hostility to the idea of even threatening withdrawal is, however, knee-jerk and rather muddle-headed. Political analysts, particularly those who have studied the historical development of the United States, view the responsible use of a right of secession as an altogether healthy phenomenon. Not only can it help keep centralising tendencies in check and prevent free-riding by members, it also permits states to increase their voice in the negotiations that matter particularly to them. All this actually avoids the risk of states’ exiting.
Another kind of union
Of course, if Germany really did secede, this would not be good for the European Union. So much is clear. And if this strategy of threatening withdrawal ended up triggering a childish round of similar moves from other members, that wouldn’t be much cop either. But that is not the point. Berlin would be pursuing this strategy primarily as a means to ruling out its own withdrawal: by signalling that its commitment to the EU is not unconditional, it would militate against the tendencies towards European centralisation and free-riding which have undermined EU-support in Germany. Moreover, if well formulated, such a strategy could actually reduce other member states’ scope to threaten withdrawal: by bringing clarity to the hurdles and duties entailed by secession, Germany could prevent other states threatening withdrawal out of hand.
To achieve this, Germany might loudly explore a new vision of the European Union and the permanence of states’ membership of it - a vision which would actually deracinate the EU from its geographical roots. The EU would be presented as a mere method, a tried-and-tested means of inducing strong political and economic integration to any group of countries. This European Union would be ‘European’ only in the sense that it was kicked off in Europe. Such a form of political integration could be applied to different geographical areas, creating intense interdependencies between any group of states. In order to prevent overstretch, one set of member states would secede as soon as they had initiated the process of integration in a neighbouring area (as the EU-15 have done in Eastern Europe and the Baltic). Those states which seceded would do so en masse, and would maintain their integrated relationship to one another.
The chief obstacle to any moves to formulate a strategy of withdrawal would be taboos in Berlin: this would be viewed as a departure from the country’s pro-European destiny. Yet, such strategies may actually be conducive to healthy political union. By showing disenchanted governments from the EU-15 that any attempts at unilateral secession could trigger a mass withdrawal, for example, Berlin would constrain the scope for withdrawal. Besides, if it explored this deracinated version of the EU, Germany would remain true to its European convictions. By promoting ‘European Union’ as a mobile modus operandi, Germany could credibly claim to be offering a form of regional integration more sustainable than the EU in its current overstretched form. Moreover, it would be doing so in such a way that the integration achieved in Western Europe would be maintained.