Thursday

29th Sep 2016

Analysis

EU regionalist parties - speech is silver, silence is golden?

  • The Flemish flag hanging alongside those of Belgium, the EU and the UN (Photo: whitecat sg)

“A new state, if it wants to join the European Union, has to apply to become a member of the European Union like any state” European Commission President Barroso said mid-September.

He was replying to a question on whether an independent Scotland would automatically remain in the EU. This was bad news for the Scottish National Party (SNP) which claims Scotland would retain its EU membership after seceding from the UK.

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A clarification of this matter is urgently needed. The Scottish government intends to hold a referendum on independence in the autumn 2014. The question is key for other regions too.

Clear examples are Flanders in Belgium, where the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) aims to secure EU membership for an independent Flanders and Catalonia, where hundred thousands of people demonstrated on 11 September for an independent Catalonia.

Whereas the SNP claims that Scotland could automatically remain in the EU-club after its independence, the N-VA has stated that Belgium will gradually evaporate leaving only a European macro-level and a Flemish micro-level.

According the N-VA, competences for which the advantages of size are greater than the costs of heterogeneity must be exercised by the EU, while competences where heterogeneity costs are too great must be exercised by Flanders.

This may look nice on paper but the reality is far more complicated.

First, there are no examples in history of ‘evaporated states’. Generally, states cease to exist following an active deed such as a declaration of independence, an international treaty or a civil war.

Drafting a realistic scenario is not easy. The EU Treaties only contain provisions allowing for the accession to the EU or, since the Lisbon Treaty, for the withdrawal from the EU.

Meanwhile European Court of Justice case-law shows regional entities do not have special status under EU law. Therefore, Flanders or Scotland only belong to the EU by virtue of the membership of their ‘mother states’. This implies a would-be independent region would have to go through the entire accession like any other country applying for EU membership.

There are no useful precedents. The only case of an entity escaping the arduous accession procedure was the de facto EU accession of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) after being absorbed by the Federal Democratic Republic (West Germany) in 1990.

The key challenge an accession procedure would pose for such a region would not be the democratic, economic or administrative criteria but the political reality. An EU accession requires unanimity among all the EU member states. This is unlikely.

First, the unanimity requirement implies that the member state from which the region seceded would be able to block the region’s EU accession. Secondly, other member states with independence-minded regions would not be eager to recognise a new state.

There are several additional questions.

Would such a new state be able to keep the euro as its national currency (or lose its opt-out in the case of Scotland)? Would its national citizens lose their European citizenship since only citizens of EU member states are EU citizens? Are the many international agreements concluded exclusively by the EU still applicable to the new state? Would such a new state profit from the customs union?

All this shows that it is too simplistic to propose that a region could simply remain in the EU after seceding from its EU member state. This is remarkable because this matter is often the core-business of these regionalist parties. It seems their vague and incomplete EU discourse is the result of strategic choice in order to keep Pandora’s box closed: speech is silver, silence is golden.

The writers are Academic Assistants and Doctoral Researchers at the European Institute, Ghent University

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