Withdrawal Symptoms

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Carlos Closa Montero is the Director of the research area European, Transnational and Global Governance at the Global Governance Programme.  

Secession and withdrawal have become highly topical European issues due to the processes under way in Scotland and Catalonia and the debate triggered by UK´s Prime Minister David Cameron, suggesting a possible British withdrawal from the EU. These debates concentrate on the position of withdrawing states and seceding territories vis-à-vis the EU.

In parallel to their support for independence, supporters of secession in both Catalonia and Scotland reiterated their commitment to remain within the EU. Some argue that this should happen naturally without having to go through accession negotiations, as mandated for new members by article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union. However, new independent territories cannot claim an automatic right to membership, although they may construct a strong moral claim to it. The emerging consensus among scholars is that seceding territories will become non-members and will have to renegotiate their relationship with the EU. An alternative would be to negotiate the accommodation of these new territories via treaty reform (i.e. article 48). This represents an heterodox way to deal with the inclusion of a new state (meaning inter alia, its share in EU institutions and bodies) which depends, first and foremost, on the political good will of the 28 members and, not least, the succeeding state. In other words, it is difficult to imagine that an EU reform created for the sake of accommodating a seceding state can be activated without the consent of the succeeding state: in purely formal terms, the seceding territory cannot be a party to reform negotiations. This ‘good will’ requisite places seceding territories in different starting positions, depending on whether the secession initiative is consensual or unilateral.

Two other obstacles add difficulties to the path of an internal treaty reform. First, the reform agenda may not be dictated exclusively by the withdrawing state: there may be pay-offs to negotiate and compensation to award to the members of the EU club (as happened during negotiation of past treaties on enlargement). Second, reform (as accession) has to be unanimously approved by all EU member states. In some cases, this may imply referendums and the risk of a failure during ratification cannot be ruled out.

EU provisions on withdrawal create a similarly weak position for the retiring state. Withdrawal is truly an unconditional, unilateral right. However, once exercised, the withdrawing state is left on its own: it may remain a member for a two-year period and negotiate its future relationship with the Union. But if no agreement is reached, nothing will oblige the EU to grant a withdrawing state a privileged relationship and the “moral” case for right to membership is also fairly weak. The withdrawing state cannot exercise a veto and EU member states may be tempted to extract large concessions in return for, say, a free trade agreement. These scenarios suggest that withdrawal, rather than offering a real option for independent membership, puts withdrawing states in a worse position than before for renegotiating their relationship with the EU. This is the real game. Whether it will pay off remains to be seen (and discussed in a future piece).