THE LAW OF GREXIT: WHAT DOES EU LAW SAY ABOUT LEAVING ECONOMIC AND MONETARY UNION?

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON EU LAW ANALYSIS  on Sunday, 28 June 2015

by Steve Peers 

A Greek referendum on whether to accept its creditors’ offer is currently scheduled for next week. It’s not clear at this point whether the Greek voters’ refusal to accept the offer would necessarily lead to Greece leaving the EU or EMU, or at least defaulting on its debts. In fact, it is not clear what would happen if Greek voters decided to accept the offer, since it was still under the process of negotiation when the referendum was announced, and may no longer be on the table at the time of the referendum.

However, since a wide range of outcomes are possible, it’s useful at this stage to look at the legal framework for departure from economic and monetary union (EMU) – and in particular whether Greece would have to leave the EU if it left the single currency. (See also my previous blog posts, before and after the last Greek election, and Ioannis Glinavos’ recent analysis of whether Greece could be forced out of the euro).

The starting point is that the EU Treaties contain detailed rules on signing up to the euro, which apply to every Member State except Denmark and the UK. Those countries have special protocols giving them an opt-out from the obligation to join EMU that applies to all other Member States. (I’ll say that again, more clearly, for the benefit of those who claim otherwise: there is absolutely no way that the UK can be required to sign up to the single currency. That would not change in any way if British voters decided that the UK should stay in the EU).

But there are no explicit rules whatsoever on a Member State leaving the euro, either of its own volition or unwillingly, at the behest of other Member States and/or the European Central Bank (ECB).  There’s an obvious reason for this: the drafters of the Maastricht Treaty wanted to ensure that monetary union went ahead, and express rules on leaving EMU would have destabilised it from the outset. Put simply, legally speaking, Greece can’t directly jump or be pushed from the single currency.In practice, though, its continued existence in the single currency could be made very difficult, as Ioannis Glinavos pointed out, either by the ECB restricting or ending emergency assistance (ELA) to Greece, or by the ECB limiting or removing Greek access to payment systems. It’s possible that any such moves would be legally challenged by the Greek government, and perhaps by other litigants too. It could be argued that they are in breach of EU monetary law as such, and/or that they breach an implied rule that Member States cannot be forced out of monetary union.

But let’s imagine that some sequence of events leads to Greek departure from the official legal framework for EMU nonetheless. This could lead to the fully-fledged introduction of a national currency (the ‘New Drachma’, or somesuch). It could instead lead to some informal link with the single currency – for instance a Greek ‘version’ of the euro, or the use of the euro as Greek’s official currency in practice without participating in the legal framework of EMU. Several countries outside the EU (such as Montenegro) take the latter approach. None of these actions are legal (for a Member State) as a matter of EU law.

For that matter, the less extreme possibility of Greece defaulting on Greek debts without leaving EMU (if that were feasible in practice) is not provided for in the Treaties either. Moreover, other Member States and the EU institutions are arguably legally obliged to refuse debt relief for Greece, in accordance with the Treaties’ no bail-out rule: as the CJEU said in Pringle, this rule allows Member States to loan money to Greece in return for conditions and an appropriate rate of interest. But they cannot simply assume responsibility for Greek government debts. Forgiving those debts would have the de factoresult of assuming them – although it might be possibly argued that the letter (but surely not the spirit) of EMU law would allow this as long as the Greek debts were not formally transferred to the EU institutions or Member States. It might also be argued that a Greek default on such debt would be a situation of force majeure, which could be accepted by creditors without this amounting to a breach of the no bail-out rule.

However, the no bail-out rule does not apply to the private sector, which explains the ‘haircuts’ already imposed on private banks, or to international bodies or third States. So Greece could default on its loans to the IMF without infringing the no bail-out rule (although that would surely breach some other legal rule). Thanks to the gods of irony, the IMF is the biggest supporter of Greek debt relief. And equally, without infringing that rule, Greece could refuse to pay back any loans that Putin might be foolish enough to give it.

Of course, the reason we got to this position in the first place was a series of legal breaches: Greece joined the single currency on the basis of inaccurate economic data, and was not punished (as EU law provides for) when it started to run debts and deficits well above the legal limits of EU law.

So if Greece does leave the EMU framework, and/or default on its debts in violation of EU law, is it obliged to leave the EU, as some have suggested? On the face of it, it’s certainly illegal for a Member State to leave EMU unless it also leaves the EU. But having said that, there would still be no legal obligation for Greece to leave the EU if it defaulted or left EMU.

Why is that? The main legal reason is that the Treaties have a specific legal regime on withdrawing from the EU: Article 50 TEU, as discussed in detail here. Article 50 says that a Member State ‘may decide to withdraw from the Union, in accordance with its own constitutional requirements’. This is manifestly a voluntary choice. There are no rules in the Treaty stating that a Member State ‘shall’ withdraw from the Union in any particular circumstances.

Nor is it possible to throw a Member State out. Article 7 TEU allows a Member State to be suspended for breaching key principles such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law. But there is no provision allowing a Member State to be fully expelled from the Union against its will.

So implicitly but necessarily, the Treaties rule out any expulsion from the EU and any requirement to leave it, in any circumstances.  But the Treaty drafters didn’t provide for States to leave EMU and/or default on debts either. If those States can’t be forced to leave the EU in such circumstances, what is the legal way forward?

Solutions to the tragedy

Classical Greek tragedies often ended with a ‘deus ex machina’ (‘god out of the box’). The playwright had manoeuvred the characters into an impossible situation, and the only way to resolve the plot was by the introduction of a radically new plot element – a god or goddess who could use his or her divine powers to resolve all of the problems which the characters faced. The normal rules of narrative are suspended.

In my view, this is where we stand with Greek participation in the EU’s single currency. Whether or not Greece stays in EMU, a new approach to the legal framework is necessary to try and address the Greek position.

I see four main possibilities. First of all, the Treaties could be amended to try to regulate the situation, if necessary with some degree of retroactivity. There could, for instance, be a new general power for the Eurozone States in the Council and/or the European Council to adopt measures to address the legal consequences of Greece departing EMU. Legally, this is the tidiest solution; but politically, it’s the most difficult one, since the Greek issues would get bound up with the British ones. It’s possible that the Treaty amendment process would fail due to issues related to Greece, rather than the UK – or the other way around.

Secondly, it could be argued that the implied powers of the EU (most obviously, Article 352 of the TFEU) could be used to address the situation. This is a difficult argument since the Treaty drafters considered EMU to be ‘irrevocable’. However, the CJEU has taken a generous approach to measures aimed at saving EMU that many people believed were clearly ruled out: financial assistance in Pringle, and the ECB’s bond purchasing programme in Gauweiler (discussed by Alicia Hinarejos here). It might equally take a generous approach to the legality of any measures aiming to clean up the enormous mess that a ‘Grexit’ would make.

Thirdly, some Greek law-makers have suggested that the Greek debts might be illegal, on the basis of a theory of ‘odious debts’ that violate human rights. As noted above, though, the CJEU has insisted on the conditionality of financial assistance, and it has also repeatedly refused to answer questions from national courts about the legality of those conditions. So at first sight, it looks difficult for this argument to succeed as a matter of EU law, although the Court has not ruled on this issue as such yet.

Fourthly, there’s a novel argument that I haven’t seen suggested before: Greek participation in the euro was invalid in the first place, because of the inaccurate economic statistics used at the time. The CJEU could declare in the same ruling that all of the legal commitments relating to Greek participation in EMU in the past remain legal, so as not to disturb legal certainty (there’s plenty of precedent for CJEU rulings like that). There are two possible variations here: a) if Greece is still participating in EMU, its participation must be retained for the same reasons of legal certainty; or b) if Greece has left EMU, its departure is legal because the original participation was invalid.

But in either case, a crucial exception to the ‘legal certainty’ rule can justify debt relief for Greece. It’s arguable that due to the essential illegality of the legal framework in which Greek debts were incurred, the no bail-out rule did not fully apply, leaving the creditors and Greece free to negotiate a realistic amount of debt relief. (True, the no bail-out rule does apply to non-Eurozone States too; but Greece borrowed far more than it would have done due to its illegal participation in the euro). If Greece has left the euro already, it could in future benefit from the slightly different regime for financial assistance to non-Eurozone States.

Although Greece would still be formally required to try to join the single currency in future, the EU tends not to pressure countries (like Sweden) which have no real intention of joining. Realistically, no one would pressure it to join for a very long time.

All of these solutions provide, in one way or another, that ‘it was all a dream’: either the debt or the euro participation never existed in the first place, or the Treaty or EU legislation retroactively apply to address the issues, or the Treaty means something quite different from what it was generally thought to mean. It is always preferable to avoid such an approach to the law, but it’s hard to see how any other type of solution could work in this case. Legally, simply put: Greece should not have joined the euro; it should not have been allowed to run up huge debts; it cannot leave EMU; and it cannot be forced to leave the EU. Economically and politically: Greeks have suffered more than enough; Greece can never pay its accumulated debts while taking austerity measures which depress its economy; but taxpayers of other Eurozone States understandably would like to see their money back.

These illegalities and economic and political conflicts cannot be resolved within the current framework, so we need to revise it radically. Of the suggestions considered here, the fourth solution has the most appeal: it is consistent not only with the classical tradition of Greek tragedy, but disturbs the current legal framework as little as possible while offering solutions (a fully legal Grexit, effective debt relief) that aim to resolve the situation as best it can be managed. It is impossible to find any solution that would satisfy every legitimate demand, but in my view this approach is the least bad alternative.

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