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Could Greece Get Kicked Out of the European Union?

Could Greece Get Kicked Out of the European Union?

Woe is Greece. Athens needs to raise $67 billion to pay back creditors this year, and will still have to manage a ruinous mountain of public and governmental debt after that. The country faces default, and the European Union — led by France and Germany — has started to negotiate a bailout. But some Greeks’ protests of austerity measures have commentators in Europe proposing more creative solutions — such as a "euro-holiday," during which Greece would devalue its currency and thus bolster its exports; a departure from the European Economic and Monetary Union; or, even more far-fetched, Greece’s ouster from the European Union. But can Europe actually kick Greece out?

In a word, no. EU bylaws provide no mechanism for expelling a member state. Indeed, the EU’s laws in spirit are integrative and unifying, "conciliatory" rather than "punitive." Therefore, in letter, they provide no option for kicking a country out, no matter how much other member countries might want to. Even if Greece invaded France — and it would take as much for Brussels to contemplate expulsion — the European Commission, a body of ministers that initiates EU laws, would have to craft new legislation to do it.

That said, Greece could choose to withdraw from the European Union. Before the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, which came into effect on Dec. 1, 2009, there was no clear pathway for withdrawal for any member state. But the revised Article 50, or the "Exit Clause," holds that in order to leave the EU Greece would have to inform the European Council that it intends to withdraw, explaining why it no longer can meet its obligations; obtain an OK from a "qualified majority" of European Council members; and negotiate a withdrawal agreement with the consent of the European Parliament.

The process sounds straightforward, but in likelihood it would be anything but. Say Greece chose to file for withdrawal in order to take control of its own monetary policy and ease its financial crisis. Other member states, like Germany, would certainly object on a number of grounds and would head to the European courts to sort out their concerns. (Chief among them would be the impact of Greece’s departure on the stability of the euro.) Resolving such disputes would take millions of dollars in legal fees and months, if not years. Plus, it is not clear what would happen if a majority of countries said no to Greece’s request for withdrawal.

As for the proposed "euro-holiday," or departure from the European Economic and Monetary Union, the single-market currency union for the eurozone, there is no way for Greece to ditch the euro without also ditching its EU membership, according to ratified law. Were Greece to decide to leave the EU, and if it could gain Brussels’ consent, Greeks could hypothetically continue to use the euro, of course, in the same way that a tourist can pay in U.S. dollars or euros in Baghdad or China. But the country would have to sever ties with the European Central Bank and institute its own currency.

Thanks to the legal services office of the European Central Bank.