Definitions

departing from

Withdrawal from the European Union

No European Union (EU) member state has ever chosen to withdraw from the European Union, though some dependent territories or semi-autonomous areas have left. Of these, only Greenland has explicitly voted to leave, departing from the EU's predecessor, the European Economic Community in 1985. The only member state to hold a national referendum on withdrawal was the United Kingdom in 1975, when 67.2% of those voting voted to remain in the then Common Market.

Procedure for EU withdrawal

There is at present (as of 2008) no provision in the treaties or law of the European Union outlining the ability of a state to voluntary withdraw from EU. The European Constitution did propose such a provision and, following the failure of the constitution, that provision has been carried over to the Treaty of Lisbon (if ratified according to schedule it would come into force in 2009, though this has been thrown into question with its rejection in an Irish referendum).

Under the United Nations Charter, all EU member states have agreed that: "In the event of a conflict between the obligation between Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail." —Article 103. This would mean that the EU cannot prevent a member from leaving, if the state could prove that its membership of the EU conflicts with part of the UN Charter; similarly states are only bound to follow EU law 'so far as they are compatible with existing international arrangements' (Article 37.5, Treaty of Rome). If a state were to wish to leave, it would be up to the European Court of Justice to interpret current treaties as to the member's obligations and conditions of withdrawal .

Under the theory of state of exception, it is possible that a national government could suspend all laws in its country, effectively withdrawing from the EU. The French Constitution, for example, contains clauses that allow for its entire suspension; this could suspend the EU laws in a country too. However, this would have to be justified in an extremely exceptional circumstance.

Historical withdrawals

Territories gaining home rule

Greenland is the only territory to have chosen to leave the EU or its predecessors without also seceding from a member state. It initially voted against joining the EEC when Denmark joined in 1973, but because Denmark as a whole voted to join, Greenland, as a part of Denmark, joined too. When home rule for Greenland began in 1979, it held a new referendum and voted to leave the EEC. After wrangling over fishing rights the territory left the EEC in 1985, but remains subject to the EU treaties through the EU Association of Overseas Countries and Territories. This was permitted by the Greenland Treaty, a special treaty signed in 1984 to allow its withdrawal .

By precedent, then, if a country wanted to withdraw from the EU it probably could, but special treaties and conditions would needed to be agreed on. This is because of pre-existing commitments that any member state would have towards the EU and its fellow members.

Territories gaining full independence

Some former territories of European Union members have left the EU when they seceded from their ruling country. The 1962 secession of French Algeria, which was an integral part of France and hence of the then-European Communities, was the only such occasion on which a territory subject to the Treaty of Rome has seceded. Most of territories - East Timor, Hong Kong and Macau - were not classed as part of the EU and EC laws were not in force in these countries. Thus, their secession did not have a major impact upon the union and not withdrawal from it.

The 1975 United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum

In 1975 the United Kingdom held a referendum in which the electorate was asked whether the UK should remain in the then European Economic Community (EEC), commonly referred to as the Common Market in the UK. The UK had joined the EEC on 1 January 1973 under the Conservative government of Edward Heath. The general election held in February 1974 was won by the Labour party, who had made a manifesto commitment to renegotiate Britain's terms of membership of the EEC and then hold a referendum on whether to remain in the EEC on the new terms.

All of the major political parties and mainstream press supported continuing membership of the EEC. However, there were significant splits within the ruling Labour party, the membership of which had voted 2:1 in favour of withdrawal at a one day party conference on 26 April 1975. Since the cabinet was split between strongly pro-Europeans and strongly anti-Europeans, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, made the decision, unprecedented outside coalition government, to suspend the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility and allowed ministers to publicly campaign against each other. In total, seven of the twenty-three members of the cabinet opposed EEC membership.

On 5 June 1975, the electorate were asked to vote yes or no on the question: '"Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" Every administrative county in the UK had a majority of "Yes", except the Shetland Islands and Western Isles. In line with the outcome of the vote, the United Kingdom remained within the EEC and later the EU.

Yes votes Yes votes (%) No votes No (%) Turnout (%)
17,378,581 67.2 8,470,073 32.8 64.5

Major withdrawal campaigns

At present, there is no state positioning itself to withdraw from the EU, but there are numerous political movements campaigning for this. Although usually minor parties, in the more eurosceptic northern states of the EU there are the occasional electoral victories. United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) came third in the UK during the 2004 European elections, pushing the traditional third party (the Liberal Democrats) to fourth place.

References

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