Open Europe Blog

You can never leave

A recent legal paper by the European Central Bank deals with the subject: “Withdrawal and Expulsion from the EU and EMU: Some reflections”. It has received quite a bit of attention. Unsurprising, perhaps, given the state of the Greek economy (see here, here, and here for example).

It starts of admitting that the EU isn’t exactly becoming more popular:

The transfer of an ever-increasing share of [member states’] essential sovereignty to the supranational European institutions, in conjunction with the EU’s declared ambition (unpopular with the public of some Member States) to bring new members within its fold, have created new tensions or exacerbated existing ones, testing the Member States’ commitment to the furtherance of European integration.

It goes on to say that the possibility of “secession” from the EU and the EMU is now worth taking a close look at, given the huge challenges facing some member states (Greece isn’t mentioned specifically, but it’s clear of which countries the paper speaks):

The increase, under the recently ratified Lisbon Treaty, of the number of policy areas where decisions will be taken by qualified majority voting rather than unanimously, the economic difficulties faced by some euro area economies (and the association made between those difficulties and the euro), the rigors of the Stability and Growth Pact, and the impact of EMU on the Member States’ room for manoeuvre in economic policy at a time of severe financial crisis are all additional reasons why the possibility of secession from the EU or EMU, and its implications, are worth examining.

The paper also gives a worrying indication of how people at the top of the EU – supposedly still an “international organisation” – think about the sovereignty of its member states:

The fact that EU membership is voluntary is not in itself conclusive since sovereignty is … given full expression in the right of any State to join a particular organisation, or not; but once a State decides to enter an organisation it is no longer free, and its own wishes are no longer decisive

Extrordinary, this reasoning seems to imply that a member state is not free to decide for itself weather it wants to leave the EU. This is of course nonsense; a country can simply unilaterally choose to take off – which Greenland did in 1985. The Lisbon Treaty now also provides for this option (But only after the country has asked the other members and the European Parliament for permission. If they disagree, the country can only leave after 2 years. (Article 50 TEU) ).

Turning to the possible succession from the eurozone, the paper goes on to say that “the only way to withdraw from EMU is to withdraw from the EU”. It concludes:

A genuinely unilateral right of withdrawal would be unthinkable in the context of EMU, not least on account of its open conflict with the plain language of Articles 4(2), 118 and 123(4) EC and Protocol 24 on the Transition to the Third Stage of Monetary Union and, in particular, with the references therein to the ‘irrevocability’ of the substitution by the euro of the currencies of the participating Member States and to the ‘irreversibility’ of the monetary union proces.

This is all pretty mind-boggling stuff, and reminds us of that old the Eagles song, ending with the line: “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave!”.

In light of what the monetary union has done – and is doing – to the eurozone’s ‘periphery’, causing bubbles in countries such as Ireland and Spain, for example, or locking in structural economic problems in Greece, you would think that now is the time for a serious ‘two-way street’ debate about the euro. The legal provisions were written at a time when the EMU only existed on paper. As the euro experiement is unfolding in real life, these legal provisions might soon be in need of revision.

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