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EUROPA > Summaries of legislation > The Union's founding principles


The Union's founding principles

Membership of the Union

Eligibility criteria and procedure for accession to the Union
Suspension of Union membership rights
Voluntary withdrawal
Summary table


The Constitutional Treaty makes minor changes to the rules governing membership of the Union and the procedure for accession. The Constitution introduces several new criteria relating to the values of the Union that have to be respected by any candidate country. The procedure for accession is maintained as set out in the current Treaties.

There has been no change to the rules concerning the possibility of depriving a Member State of some of its rights if it infringes the Union's fundamental values, except for the necessary majorities in the Council, which have been increased.

On the other hand, the Constitution introduces a voluntary withdrawal clause which, for the first time, gives Member States the option of withdrawing from the Union. This is a major innovation.

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Article I-1 of the Constitutional Treaty provides that "the Union shall be open to all European States which respect its values and are committed to promoting them together".

The eligibility criteria and the procedure for accession are laid down in Article I-58 of the Constitutional Treaty. As compared with the rules of the existing treaties, the Constitution does not make any major change. Article I-58 stipulates that "the Union shall be open to all European States which respect the values of the Union , which are referred to in Article I-2". However, this Article includes a number of supplementary criteria, by comparison with the existing Treaty, hence including human dignity and equality and referring to the rights of persons belonging to minorities. This Article also specifies that the societies of the Member States must be characterised by "pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men".

The Constitution maintains the procedure for accession. Every request for accession is subject to unanimity in the Council and the approval of the European Parliament , which acts by an absolute majority of its Members. The conditions and arrangements for entry are the subject of an agreement between the Member States and the candidate country, which must be ratified by all the Contracting States.

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The existing treaties provide for the possibility of suspending Union membership rights , if the existence of a serious and persistent breach of the Union's fundamental values on the part of a Member State is ascertained (Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union). In such a case the Council may suspend the Member State's right to vote as well as certain of its other rights.

The Constitutional Treaty does not make any basic alteration to these rules, which are set out in Article I-59. In the procedure, only the possible consultation of independent personalities ("the Committee of the Wise") has been deleted. Special majorities apply to voting in the European Council, the Council and the European Parliament, given the consequences of decisions of this kind.

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The existing treaties do not contain any exit clause for a Member State which wishes to withdraw from the Union and they have been concluded for an indeterminate period. The only precedent in this connection is the withdrawal of Greenland in 1985. This change in the territorial application of the Treaties was possible following an amendment of the Treaties that was ratified by all the Member States. The Constitution introduces a voluntary withdrawal clause, which is a major innovation (Article I-60).

Withdrawal may take place at any time and is not bound up with revisions of the Constitution or other conditions. The Member State which wishes to withdraw notifies the European Council, which examines this notification. The Union negotiates a withdrawal agreement with the Member State in question, which sets out the arrangements for its withdrawal and regulates the future relationship between this State and the Union. The applicable procedure is the one set out in Article III-325. The Council of Ministers concludes this agreement on the part of the Union, acting by a qualified majority, and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament. Note that the representative of the withdrawing Member State may not participate in the discussions or in the vote.

The Constitution would then cease to apply to the State in question from the date laid down in the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification of the European Council of the wish to withdraw. The European Council may extend this period of time, acting unanimously and with the agreement of the Member State concerned. This implies that the withdrawal may enter into force even if the Union has not given its consent. This voluntary withdrawal clause is therefore a major innovation.

A Member State which has withdrawn from the Union may re-join, without the normal accession procedure referred to in Article I-58.

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Articles Subject Comments
I-1 Establishment of the Union -
I-2 The Union's values Major changes
I-58 Conditions of eligibility and procedure for accession to the Union -
I-59 Suspension of Union membership rights -
I-60 Voluntary withdrawal from the Union New rules
III-325 Agreements between the Union and third countries -

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These fact sheets are not legally binding on the European Commission. They do not claim to be exhaustive and do not represent an official interpretation of the text of the Constitution.

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