The European Union and Secession

By Nash, Michael L. | Contemporary Review, May 1997 | Go to article overview

The European Union and Secession


Nash, Michael L., Contemporary Review


Could Britain leave the European Union? Whatever the political stance, it is a question which should be answered even in merely legal and technical terms.

The short answer is that there is no provision for withdrawal or secession in any of the Founding Treaties or their revisions. The provision for application, for joining, the European Union has never itself been clear in a detailed manner. The original Section 237 of the First Treaty of Rome in 1957 simply stated that 'Any European State may apply to become a member of the Community'. This, through Article 8 of the Single European Act of 1987 has now become Article 0 (Title VII. Final Provisions) of the Treaty of European Union 1993 (Maastricht), now reading Any European State may apply to become a member of the Union. It shall address its application to the Council, which shall act unanimously after consulting the Commission and after receiving the assent of the European Parliament, which shall act by an absolute majority of its component members.

The conditions of admission and the adjustments to the Treaties on which the Union is founded which such admission entails shall be the subject of an agreement between the Member States and the applicant State. This agreement shall be submitted for ratification by all the contracting States in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements.'

However, nowhere is there a definition of the term 'European', so that Turkey and Morocco have both applied and their initial applications have not been blocked. As Roy Jenkins confirmed in 1986 and several times since, including to Parliamentary committees, there are two other 'unofficial' criteria, namely that the applicant state should be democratic, and that it shall convince the other member states that it really wants to join. The terms of joining are clearly an essential factor if the state then, having been accepted, wishes to leave or secede.

Only one 'state' has ever seceded from the Union. This was Greenland in 1985, and so this unsatisfactory precedent has naturally been taken up by Europhobes and Eurosceptics alike. Even Europhiles would want to know what is the legal and practical basis of the matter. Greenland, firstly, is not a fully sovereign state. Its inclusion into the Community, as it then was, in 1972, was because it was a dependency of Denmark. However, on 1 May, 1979, Greenland attained subsequent internal autonomy under Danish sovereignty. It began to reconsider its position vis-a-vis the European Community. It was, after all, much closer to the mainland of North America and its economy could be geared much more sensibly to that geographical proximity.

Jonathan Motzfeldt, the leader of the Socialist Party and Prime Minister in Greenland's autonomous Government (Landstyre), had led a campaign for withdrawal, and obtained the consent of the Danish Government on 20 August, 1981, for the holding of a referendum. Originally Greenland had been included within the Danish referendum on Community membership held on 3 October, 1972, in which a substantial overall majority had approved Denmark's forthcoming accession, though the votes cast in Greenland had shown a 70 per cent majority against membership. (The Faroe Islands, already at that time enjoying internal autonomy under Danish sovereignty, had been given a special external associate status under the Danish Treaty of Accession).

Why did Greenland then consider withdrawal or secession after 1979? Within the Community, Greenland's fishing industry (which accounted for 55 per cent of the country's exports) had been allowed exclusive fishing rights within a 12-mile coastal zone, with other countries, particularly what was then West Germany, enjoying access within the remainder of Greenland's coastal waters up to 200 miles offshore. Although this arrangement was generally regarded as giving Greenland's fishermen rights over as much fish as their catch capacity required (82,000 tonnes in 1979) opponents of Community membership argued that withdrawal would give Greenland control over fishing rights within the whole 200-mile zone, and that access rights could then be sold to other countries, thereby helping to offset the financial consequences of losing Community aid funds. …

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