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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 Community.


Procedure for EU withdrawal

Before the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force on 1 December 2009 no provision in the treaties or law of the European Union outlined the ability of a state to voluntary withdraw from EU. The European Constitution did propose such a provision and, after the failure to ratify the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, that provision was then included in the Lisbon Treaty.

The treaty introduces an exit clause for members who wish to withdraw from the Union. This formalises the procedure by stating that a member state may notify the European Council that it wishes to withdraw, upon which withdrawal negotiations begin; if no other agreement is reached the treaty ceases to apply to the withdrawing state two years after such notification.[1]

Article 311a, introduced by the Lisbon Treaty allows the status of French, Dutch and Danish overseas territories to be changed more easily, by no longer requiring a full treaty revision. Instead, the European Council may, on the initiative of the member state concerned, change the status of an overseas country or territory (OCT) to an outermost region (OMR) or vice versa.[2]

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,[3] 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 [4].

By precedent, then, if a country wanted to withdraw from the EU it probably could, but special treaties and conditions would need 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 other territories - Hong Kong and Macau - were not classed as part of the EU and EC laws were not in force in these countries.

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 the Outer Hebrides. In line with the outcome of the vote, the United Kingdom remained within the EEC and later the EU.

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

Major withdrawal campaigns

As of January 2010, there are no countries positioning themselves to withdraw from the EU, but there are numerous political movements campaigning for withdrawal. Although usually minor parties, in the more eurosceptic states of the EU there are the occasional electoral victories. In the UK, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) campaigns for British withdrawal, achieving third place in the UK during the 2004 European elections and second place in the 2009 European elections – that time gaining the same number of seats as the governing Labour Party. Polls show that support for withdrawal going from 9%[5] to 55%[6], depending on the wording of the question. In October 2009 a Daily Mail survey revealed that 58% of those polled wanted a referendum on the United Kingdom's membership of the EU[7]. It has been suggested that Australian-born American media mogul Rupert Murdoch who owns newspapers (The Sun, The Times) and TV (Sky) plays a significant role in the British public debate with his opposition to European integration[8][9]. As of January 2010 none of the three major parties (Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) advocate a referendum on membership.


  1. ^ Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, as amended by the Treaty of Lisbon
  2. ^ The provision reads:
    "6. The European Council may, on the initiative of the Member State concerned, adopt a decision amending the status, with regard to the Union, of a Danish, French or Netherlands country or territory referred to in paragraphs 1 and 2. The European Council shall act unanimously after consulting the Commission."
  3. ^ "Greenland Out of E.E.C.," New York Times (4 February 1985)
  4. ^ European law mentioning Greenland Treaty
  5. ^ "YouGov poll," YouGov (12 January 2009)
  6. ^ "Poll: Brits want to leave EU," BBC2 (18 March 2009)
  7. ^ Tip Shipman, "Cameron's great gamble pays off: Mail poll reveals voters back Tories' tough stance on economy," MailOnline (10 October 2009).
  8. ^
  9. ^

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