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EU: Candidate Countries Want To Be In, But Some Want To Ensure They Can Get Out

Ten mostly Central and Eastern European countries are due to join the European Union next year. The procedures for joining the EU are clear, but current EU treaties make no mention of how to leave the union. Some candidate countries, fearful of losing their national identities, want clear-cut procedures for withdrawal. A new European constitution, which is expected to be adopted later this year, will specify how member countries can leave the organization if they so choose.

Prague, 4 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Currently, there are no clear procedures specifying how a member country may leave the European Union. Some EU candidate countries -- Estonia and Latvia, in particular -- while very interested in knowing the way in, are also interested in the way out. Latvian and Estonian politicians are debating changes in their constitutions that would allow them to leave the EU if they decide to do so. Fellow Baltic state Lithuania does not consider the problem of leaving the EU to be an issue at this point.

Estonians and Latvians fear they may lose their unique national identities once they are admitted to the EU. Once part of the Soviet Union, Estonia and Latvia remember the disadvantages of living within a "union" and want to retain the option of leaving.

Marius Vahl, an analyst with the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, told RFE/RL that the EU does not use coercion to keep members in the union. He said, however, that a procedure for leaving the EU has not yet been legally formalized. "There is nothing in the treaties in force today that stipulates how a country may leave the European Union.... No country has left the European Union. The only one that left the European Union is actually Greenland. But that was not a country in itself. It was a part of Denmark," Vahl said.

Greenland, which is formally an autonomous part of Denmark, left the EU in 1985 because the economic and living conditions on the island were so different from those on the European continent that the application of EU rules was deemed impossible.

Vahl said that Latvia and Estonia are different, that their anxiety is driven by their forced incorporation into the Soviet Union. "[The EU] is fundamentally different [from the Soviet Union] because the member states have the right to [make fundamental decisions], and it was not the case in the Soviet Union. But the treaties [about entering the EU] are international treaties, and there is international law.... You know you can leave an international treaty as you like. That's a prerogative of sovereign states," Vahl said.

Radek Khol is an analyst at the Czech Institute of International Relations. He agrees with Vahl that there are no current legal mechanisms to allow members to leave the EU. "Within the current treaty on the European Union, [leaving the EU] would be effectively impossible. Nevertheless, the new constitutional treaty, which is prepared by the Convention on the Future of Europe, is already putting such a clause into the relevant chapters [of the text]," Khol said.

The preliminary draft of the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe is currently under discussion by the Convention on the Future of Europe. Article 46 of the treaty discusses the procedures and consequences of voluntary withdrawal from the EU by the decision of a member state.

Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut is a spokesman for the office of the president of the European convention. He told RFE/RL that Article 46 will be discussed at the convention in April. "Those who are in favor of this clause are in favor of this clause because they don't think that this will be something which will play a big role in reality but that it will help in a certain number of countries where you have referendums and so on to counter politically the thesis of EU opponents who say: 'We have given up our identity. We have given up our states. We cannot go back. Everything was given away.' And so on, and so on, and so on," Meyer-Landrut said.

Solvita Mellupe, the chairwoman of the Latvian parliamentary committee on legal affairs, told RFE/RL that parliament is mulling constitutional changes that would not only make passage of a referendum on EU membership easier but that would also make it easier, in theory, for Latvia to leave the EU through a similar referendum. "The constitutional changes are made not only because of the referendum [on EU membership]. Joining the EU is not as simple as just voting in the referendum. There should be inserted into [the constitution] mechanisms to ensure that [if Latvia is unhappy in the EU], the reverse decisions [are possible]. For instance, Latvia happens to want to leave the EU, there will be mechanisms [in the constitution] allowing such a step to be taken. The changes in the constitution will allow Latvia to leave the EU [as easily as it enters it]," Mellupe said.

Khol said, however, that withdrawing from the EU will not be easy. Candidate countries will be receiving substantial EU financial support, and their economies will be closely integrated into EU structures. Divorce, he said, would be a complicated matter. "If any of the future EU states decides at some point that it wants to leave the union, it would be, indeed, fairly complicated, in political, economic, legal, and financial aspects. And I think that most of the states would probably try to avoid such a prospect," Khol said.

Khol said the EU, from the beginning, was created as a one-way street and counts on close political and economic integration.

However, Meyer-Landrut said the EU is not a prison: "You are there on your own will, and if you change your mind, you just go out -- full stop."