Episode 743: 50 Ways to Leave Your Union : Planet Money Today on the show, two unions separated by 200 years, an ocean and an exit clause. The United States has no exit clause. It led to civil war. Europe, on the other hand, has Article 50.
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Episode 743: 50 Ways to Leave Your Union

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Episode 743: 50 Ways to Leave Your Union

Episode 743: 50 Ways to Leave Your Union

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So, Jess, I don't know if you happened to see this video. It is of Theresa May, the prime minister of the U.K., and she is at a European Union Council meeting in Brussels. Let me just play it for you.



Oh, she's all alone.

VANEK SMITH: So you see all these European delegates talking and hugging in this fancy conference room. And Theresa May is just standing in the middle of everything totally alone, like, pulling on her jacket sleeve. No one will talk to her.

JIANG: It's Brexit shaming. She's getting snubbed because of Brexit.

VANEK SMITH: And it looks almost exactly like my junior high lunchroom experience.


VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) It's true.

JIANG: This awkwardness might continue. It looks like 2017 might be the year the European Union starts to break up, when the U.K. begins this two-year process of decoupling from the union.

VANEK SMITH: And they're actually using the EU's own constitutional rules to do it, a law called article 50. It's an exit clause that says if any country wants to leave this new union, it can. It was a late addition to EU laws and it was controversial. I mean, is it a good idea to have a prenup built into the laws of your brand new union?

JIANG: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jess Jiang.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. The exit clause - the European Union has one, the United States of America does not.


VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, we consider the exit clause. After all, there has been this wave of protectionism kind of sweeping the globe. And soon, we could all be the lonely Theresa May at the EU Council meeting.


VANEK SMITH: The roots of the European Union go back to the 1950s. Europe had gone through two terrible world wars and the EU was the symbol of a new era of peace and free trade, all of these countries coming together.

JIANG: Kimmo Kiljunen was one of the architects of this. He's from Finland, a longtime member of Parliament, and the EU was like his life's work.

VANEK SMITH: You're a founding father.

KIMMO KILJUNEN: We are the founding fathers (laughter) - felt so strongly that now we are creating united state of Europe now.

VANEK SMITH: Kimmo spent years in small conference rooms hammering out treaties, trying to make this union come together. And it was incredibly hard. It meant juggling the interests of dozens of countries, trying to overcome cultural differences and language barriers. Even something as simple as cracking a joke was a nightmare. It had to be filtered through dozens of translators into more than 20 languages.

KILJUNEN: If I make a joke, the first people to laugh are the Finnish delegates and Estonians who understand Finnish. Let's say 15 seconds or 10 seconds later on, start to be big laughs when those who are listening the English translator are laughing. And then comes 10 seconds more or 15 seconds more, the rest are laughing when they have been translated from English to their natural languages.

VANEK SMITH: Kimmo and the other European delegates went through this process for everything - every EU law, every little decision.

JIANG: We asked Kimmo to tell us of Finnish joke.

KILJUNEN: (Foreign language spoken).

JIANG: And in English.

KILJUNEN: That's a joke says that what is a common with the mouse and elephant?


KILJUNEN: What is common with mouse and elephant? They are not screwdrivers. That's true. That's not - that's true, absolutely on true terms.

VANEK SMITH: It is true.

KILJUNEN: No, exactly. So that's a...

JIANG: I don't get it.


KILJUNEN: See, you got the Finnish jokes.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. I don't know if we got the Finnish joke, Jess.

JIANG: I still don't get it.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) I don't get it, either. But for all the differences and language barriers, Kimmo says the EU had this goal, this idea. They wanted to create a union that looked a lot like the United States.

JIANG: It's flattering to think that the Europeans wanted to be more like us, but actually Kimmo says, no, no, no, hold your roll. It's more that the EU were up against the same challenges that the U.S. Founding Fathers were up against it.

KILJUNEN: We were almost like in Philadelphia Convention, of course, the president Giscard d'Estaing supposed to be George Washington, et cetera (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Who are you? Who are you of the Founding Fathers?

KILJUNEN: I was one of the members of the convention (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Hamilton, or...

KILJUNEN: I'm coming from small country, Finland, so you must understand in convention, so we must also be humble.

VANEK SMITH: At the time the U.S. Constitution was written, 13 colonies - the different states - were all basically operating like little countries. They would get in these big fights with each other over land. New York and New Hampshire got in a big fight over Vermont. And they would even tax stuff coming in from other states. They actually imposed tariffs against each other.

JIANG: And the cultures were really different. Pennsylvania was mostly Quakers. Maryland was almost all Catholics. Georgia was still really wild.

VANEK SMITH: Even language was an issue. Accents were really strong in the different colonies and often people from one state could not understand what people from another state were saying. We actually got our hands on some early recordings from the U.S. that showcase the different accents. These are more than a hundred years old so the recording quality is really bad. But if you listen really carefully, you can hear how strong the accents are. The first recording is a man from Massachusetts and it's hard to hear him, but he is talking about being a soldier and getting ammunition and being out in the cold. See if you can understand what he says.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, we didn't have any. We didn't get (unintelligible).

JIANG: I have no idea what he just said.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) And there's another recording, this is a woman from Virginia and she's talking about donuts versus crullers, I think.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But some people call everything that's fried in fat, donuts. And others call them (unintelligible).

JIANG: Did she say crab cakes?

VANEK SMITH: I think she did. It was also hard for people from one state to do business with people from another state because each state had its own currency. There was the Pennsylvania pound sterling and Rhode Island had these weird handmade certificates. David O. Stewart is the author of "The Summer Of 1787." He said a lot of times you couldn't use currency from one state in another state.

DAVID O. STEWART: If you traveled, you could stop at an inn and offer them Pennsylvania pound sterling and the guy says, no, I don't take those. Or he might have said, well, I'll take them but I'll - only at a 40 percent discount.

JIANG: This is what the founders were up against when they were trying to create the United States. They did have a loose central government, but nobody took it seriously. A lot of the states wouldn't bother showing up to the meetings. And this little union couldn't get anything done. It couldn't even manage to get a federal tax passed.

STEWART: In order to approve a tax, you needed a unanimous vote. But they never got a unanimous vote because there's always somebody who doesn't want taxes. So...

JIANG: They had no money.

STEWART: Well, they had no money. They'd asked the states to give them money, to just sort of - for donations.

JIANG: Public radio.

VANEK SMITH: The public radio fundraising model (laughter).

STEWART: It was, it was, although the entertainment wasn't as good.

VANEK SMITH: Maybe they should have tried giving out desk...

JIANG: Tote bags.

VANEK SMITH: You cannot go wrong with a tote bag. David says there was so much infighting among the states that George Washington said the states were all pulling against each other and that it would, quote, "soon bring ruin to the whole."

JIANG: But a lot of people thought that would be OK. Remember, they had just fought a war against the British. The idea of creating a strong central government was frightening, but statesmen like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison thought the only way for the country to survive and be a real presence in the world was to unify. So they set a meeting for all the state delegates in 1787 to write a Constitution of the United States.

VANEK SMITH: We now know this as the Philadelphia Convention. And it took place in Independence Hall, which at that time was the state house.

STEWART: They spent the whole summer basically with each other. Six days a week they were in that room.

JIANG: That room couldn't of smelled good.

STEWART: No. Well, you touch on a important point. They thought it was very important that they meet in secret, that no one know what they were arguing about because they thought it would undermine their credibility when they finally reached agreement. They closed the doors and kept the windows shut, which in July in Philadelphia...

JIANG: Oh, God.

STEWART: ...Is really hot.

VANEK SMITH: The smaller states were worried that their voices would be lost in this new union. The larger states did not want to give up their power. So in the end there was a compromise. That is how we ended up with the two different houses of Congress. And the Electoral College was also part of this compromise. It gave smaller states a bigger voice in the presidential election.

JIANG: And 200 years later, Europe was talking about the same things when the EU was forming. Kimmo Kiljunen - our European founding father - debated these kinds of issues, flying back and forth from Finland to Brussels, tackling issue after issue for years.

KILJUNEN: Usually they were very, very, very intensive the days, very long days.

VANEK SMITH: Everything was up for debate and everything was a battle. What should the European anthem be? What should the flag look like? Should we have an army? Should we have a central bank? What should we put on the euro, this new currency we have?

JIANG: That one was a huge fight. Irwin Stelzer, a columnist and economist, told us all about it.

IRWIN STELZER: There was no - any image on any of the paper identifiable with any country.

VANEK SMITH: So what have they put on there?

STELZER: Well, you know, you have a couple of what look like buildings. You have a couple of birds. And this a huge brawl over each image on the euro currency.

VANEK SMITH: There was also a huge fight over where the parliament should be. They couldn't settle on any one place so the EU Parliament sits for part of the year in Brussels and part of the year in Strasbourg, which is a city in France right on the border with Germany.

STELZER: And they moved the entire Parliament, lock, stock and barrel.

VANEK SMITH: And even after all of those debates on all of those issues, a lot of countries were still skeptical. And so in the last treaty that made up the EU's constitutional laws, they added article 50 - an exit clause.

JIANG: OK. So if you kind of think about the European Union as this kind of marriage of all these different countries, then having this exit clause is almost like having a prenup right there. And so...

KILJUNEN: No, having divorce option.

JIANG: Having divorce...


KILJUNEN: We are not Catholic in the way that is - you must be - when you are married once you are up to that life. We are Protestant more so you have the divorce option.

VANEK SMITH: Kimmo says article 50 was really essential in creating this new union. He says when delegates from other countries would come to him worried that the EU was going to look like the U.S. with a really strong centralized government, where their country would lose its identity. Kimmo would say, no, no, no, that's not us. This is not the U.S. We have an exit clause. You can leave anytime you want.

KILJUNEN: You always saying that we are creating United State of Europe here. No, we are not creating. There's an exit clause. You see it.

VANEK SMITH: There's an exit clause, you see it.

JIANG: And Kimmo says there were a lot of skeptical countries. The U.K. was a big one, they never adopted the euro.

VANEK SMITH: Never put a ring on it.

JIANG: Nope.

VANEK SMITH: Nope. It was a very different situation from what happened in this country at the Philadelphia Convention. Our union was created to be a different kind of union and it's evident from the very first line in our Constitution, says U.S. historian David O. Stewart.

STEWART: Our Constitution does start out saying we the people.

JIANG: David says we the people meant the union answered to the people, not the states.

STEWART: Patrick Henry, when he opposed the Constitution, actually his first speech started out, how dare they say we the people in the opening of the Constitution. That's an outrage. It should say, we the states.

JIANG: The EU's constitutional documents do not start out with we the people. And, Stacey, you have it there.

VANEK SMITH: Yep, here it is. His majesty, the king of the Belgians, the president of the Czech Republic, her majesty, the Queen of Denmark, the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, the president of the federal public of Estonia, the president of the Hellenic Republic, his majesty, the king of Spain.

JIANG: And it just goes on like that for a page, basically listing out all the leaders of all the countries. The existence of an exit clause comes down to where the final power lies - with the union or with the individual parts. Europe chose individual parts. We chose the union. We have no exit clause.

VANEK SMITH: And we paid a big price for that. When a group of 11 Southern states tried to secede from the union in 1860, Abraham Lincoln said, you can't do that.

STEWART: President Lincoln very much had the view, which he articulated, that the union was indissoluble. That no state could leave the union and that no state actually did leave the union. That even though those Southern states thought they'd left the union, they'd been terribly mistaken. So it is at some level a almost metaphysical, very theoretical question.

VANEK SMITH: Seventy years after the United States was founded, it fought a civil war. And Kimmo Kiljunen, our delegate from Finland, says the European Union took a lesson from this - make the union voluntary. If a country really wants to leave, it should have that right.

KILJUNEN: To be honest, I never would imagine that any country of a member state of European Union would leave it union.

JIANG: Then the financial crisis happened. There were bank bailouts, austerity measures, a Syrian refugee crisis. And the U.K. said, this union isn't working for us anymore.

VANEK SMITH: Kimmo says when he heard the news about Brexit, he was devastated. He didn't even believe it at first. Still, he says, he does see it as progress.

KILJUNEN: It wasn't a war. Usually these type of fundamental breaks are results of war. Britain might leave European Union without war. That's a positive side.

JIANG: Kimmo says if he had to do it all over again, he would still put in article 50.

VANEK SMITH: So you don't regret article 50?

KILJUNEN: Absolutely no. I don't regret.

JIANG: But this civilized exit might spell the end of the EU, and that's where we are now.

VANEK SMITH: Next year, Theresa May, the prime minister of the U.K., is expected to trigger article 50. Britain and the EU will start hammering out the terms of leaving. Irwin Stelzer, the economist, says if this happens the EU is going to need to make this hurt, as a signal to other restless countries who might be eyeing the exit, that leaving this union is a bad idea.

STELZER: The EU has to try to include a punishment factor in the negotiations, something that makes it clear to other countries that Britain is paying through the nose for leaving. And that's going to make the negotiation very, very difficult.

VANEK SMITH: So it needs to be like article 50 with a bullet?

STELZER: Well, you have stronger words than I do.


VANEK SMITH: Yeah, a bullet is what we did here in the U.S. In Europe, leaving the union looks more like a woman standing alone in the middle of a crowded room while everyone talks and shakes hands and laughs in the background.


JIANG: We always like to hear what you think. Send us an email, planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Today's episode was produced by Nick Fountain. Thank you, Nick.

VANEK SMITH: We would also like to thank Harvey Todd (ph) from the Library of Congress for those early American recordings. And if you're looking for another podcast to listen to, check out Pop Culture Happy Hour. They have a roundup of all the best podcasts from 2016, so check them out. They are at npr.org/podcasts or on NPR One. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

JIANG: And I'm Jess Jiang. Thanks for listening.


VANEK SMITH: Eighteen years, 18 years, she's got one of your kids, got you for 18 years. Sorry, I'm never going to get that on my head. 'Cause when she leaves your [expletive], she's going to leave with half. OK. It's something that you need to have. Did Kanye have a prenup? Oh, with Kim, he must have. OK.

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