- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

“Anymember State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” John C. Calhoun would have liked it and Jefferson Davis used it. Abraham Lincoln would have opposed it. Yet it would have saved the lives of thousands — the right to secede.

Granting this right as a constitutional right may be quite unexpected. Yet this is precisely what the European Union did with Article I-60 of its constitutional treaty project as quoted above. Thus the withdrawal would be made through an agreement with the union which would establish the future relationship with the secession state.

But it is not all: The EU also grants the constitutional right to come back. The procedure would then follow the usual application for any states to enter the Union as detailed in article I-58: “The Council shall act unanimously after consulting the Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.”

Because of their past, Americans may be more sensitive than other people to this right and its consequences.This gesture is unique in history, making the European Constitution incredibly flexible. With a door wide open for those who want to leave — and left open for them to return — the European Union is setting forth a striking modern constitutional right.

As divorce has been legalized, a divorce procedure was created between countries. History gives lessons: Compromises are not good long-term solutions to keep all states together. In American history, such compromise builders as Henry Clay just bought time before the Civil War broke out.

Paradoxically, the right to secede may strengthen the union. In its building, the European Union is cautious about not missing any steps. Providing a flexible framework in order to preserve peace on a continent which was ravaged by wars is a priority. It is wise politics to enable a country that does not want to stay to leave the union. This approach would avert the possibility of a lethal crisis which may end in civil war.

Far from endangering the cohesion of the union, the secession right is a precautionary principle which is very likely to strengthen it and protect the positive diversity of each member state. This is another paradoxical consequence. In its building, the European Union is cautious about not missing any steps. Providing a flexible framework in order to preserve peace on a continent which was ravaged by war is a priority. It is therefore wise politics to offer an exit if one country does not want to stay, thus avoiding gridlock or compromises which threaten to transform the EU into a lame duck.

The secession right could also act as a limitation on power, preventing the creation of a European superstate, the Euroskeptics’ nightmare and the constant fear of free traders. Brussels shall make no laws hurting any member state, and shall not even try to centralize too much power if it wants to avoid the use of article I-60. Thus, far from threatening European cohesion, the secession right would prevent the building of a supergovernment. It would then also satisfy Euroskeptics, who could have a powerful tool to protect diversity in the union, keeping all states together.

Last, but not least, the secession right could be a key element in creating a true balance of power and influence among member states. Democracy’s aim is to protect the minority from the will of the majority. Thus could work Article I-60. If ever some group of states are too forceful in imposing their will through the shaping of European policies, article I-60 could be activated. But this is in no one’s interest, and this article may limit the growth of some states’ influence.

The secession right as a way to cement the union: Why not — at least in Europe? Let’s watch.

Sylvain Charat is director of policy studies at the French think tank Eurolibnetwork.

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