Volume 36 - Issue 5 Fordham International Law Journal

EU Law and the Separation of Member States

The most profound contribution of Konrad Schiemann to the European Union may well have been his Mackenzie Stuart Lecture at the University of Cambridge on February 9, 2012.  Having been born in Germany of German parents but brought up and educated in England, followed by a long and distinguished career as barrister, Queen’s Counsel and judge, he set out the case for the EU as a source of inspiration—what one might call the moral case for Europe. His lecture deserves to be read and valued by the students of the current generation for whom the experiences of our generation are as remote as were the Franco–Prussian War of 1870–71 or the Bulgarian atrocities of 1876 for us.

As my contribution to this set of essays in honour of Konrad Schiemann, I would like to address a more limited topic which has its own moral dimension. This is the problem that would arise if one constituent part of a Member State were to decide to separate from the rest of that State. The problem arises today—at least potentially—in the cases of Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders vis-à-vis, respectively, the remainder of the United Kingdom, Spain and Belgium.

The moral dimension has been accentuated very recently by a contribution of Professor Joseph Weiler as editor of the European Journal of International Law on the subject of Catalonian independence.  According to Professor Weiler, “It is simply ethically demoralizing to see the likes of Catalonia reverting to an early 20th-century post-World War I mentality, when the notion that a single state could encompass more than one nationality seemed impossible . . . .”  The Catalan claims of historic wrongs in the Franco era are “but a fig leaf for seriously misdirected social and economic egoism, cultural and national hubris and the naked ambition of local politicians.”  He concludes:


Europe should not seem like a Nirvana for that form of irredentist Euro-tribalism which contradicts the deep values and needs of the Union. The assumption of automatic membership in the Union should be decisively squelched by the countries from whom secession is threatened and if their leaders, for internal political reasons, lack the courage so to say, by other Member States of the Union, France in the lead.


As regards the legal position, the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, in a letter to the Chairman of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee of the United Kingdom Parliament, has stated:


The EU is founded on the Treaties which apply only to the Member States who have agreed and ratified them. If part of the territory of a Member State would cease to be part of that state because it were to become a new independent state, the Treaties would no longer apply to that territory. In other words, a new independent state would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the EU and the Treaties would no longer apply on its territory.

Under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, any European state which respects the principles set out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union may apply to become a member of the EU. If the application is accepted by the Council acting unanimously, an agreement is then negotiated between the applicant state and the Member States on the conditions of admission and the adjustments to the Treaties which such admission entails. This agreement is subject to ratification by all Member States and the applicant state.


The purpose of this essay is to examine the legal correctness of Mr. Barroso’s statement (‘the Barroso theory’), and statements to the opposite effect. But I should first make my own position clear, since I am a Scot living in Scotland, and I will be one of those that will be asked next year (2014) to vote in a referendum on the issue of Scottish independence. The issue of Scotland’s future within the EU is one that has profound implications for that debate.

I am personally a moderate unionist in the sense that I still believe in the United Kingdom but I respect the sincerely held views of moderate separatists, like the late Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, who believe in Scottish independence. I hope very much that the issue of an independent Scotland’s place in the EU will not arise, but the issue is still important and concerns other countries as well.

It may be, as Professor Weiler suggests, that the issue should not arise, and that the pretensions of separatists in Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders should be dismissed as irredentist Euro-tribalism. The fact remains that a more than insignificant proportion of the people in those areas supports them. Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (‘TEU’) affirms the belief that the Union is founded on certain core values, including respect for human dignity, freedom and democracy.  If the majority were to vote for independence, it is difficult to see why those core values should not be respected.

In any event, I can see nothing ignoble or tribalist in the belief that small countries are likely to be more in tune with the aspirations of their citizens than large ones. That, after all, is an aspect of subsidiarity, one of the Union’s core principles set out in Article 5 TEU.  And it is not obvious to me why the EU should hold its doors open to the small nations of Middle and Eastern Europe whose very existence as independent states is due to the break-up of greater entities, while slamming them shut against the aspirations of those who regard themselves as ‘stateless nations’ in Western Europe.

In short, the moral arguments are ambivalent and it seems to me to be more fruitful to focus on the legal issues. Before doing so, however, it is necessary to highlight important differences between the three cases of Scotland, Flanders and Catalonia. In each case, there are complex and mutually incompatible arguments at the national level.


Full Essay Available in:
Fordham International Law Journal
Volume 36, Number 5


Suggested Citation:
David Edward, EU Law and the Separation of Member States, 36 Fordham Int’l L.J. 1151 (2013)


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