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Five lessons Brexit negotiators should take from the League of Nations

The official opening of the League of Nations, 15 November 1920. Wikipedia/A. Frankl - National Library of Norway

Five lessons Brexit negotiators should take from the League of Nations

Brexit has few precedents in international history.

Parallels have been drawn to Greenland’s 1985 European Community withdrawal, and Burundi and Gambia abandoning International Criminal Court membership. Yet, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is unmatched in recent history. No country has ever withdrawn from an international organisation, potentially cutting ties with the world’s most tight knit common market, on this scale before.

The closest to a relevant parallel is the League of Nations, which dealt with the withdrawal of multiple member states between 1925 and 1939.

Leaving the league

The international League of Nations was founded after World War I, dedicated to the prevention of war through disarmament, arbitration and a system of collective security guarantees.

Like Article 50, the league’s founding text, the Covenant of the League of Nations, sets out withdrawal conditions and a two-year notification period. But – as with Article 50 – it was never thought that the Convenant’s withdrawal paragraph would be invoked; US President Woodrow Wilson suggested its inclusion to gain approval of the reticent US Senate.

However, the league’s experience with countries leaving during the interwar period can now offer some valuable lessons for the Brexit process.

1. Pay your dues

When Costa Rica notified the League of Nations of its intention to withdraw in 1923, it forwarded a cheque to cover outstanding membership and incurred expenditures. The departure was a straightforward affair.

By contrast, the 1935 withdrawal of Paraguay was fraught with complications: financial default inhibited it from paying its outstanding league debt. A territorial dispute with Bolivia had also led to war in 1933 – even though unjustified military aggression was in violation of the covenant. Paraguay remained in limbo for two years after notification: its benefits were restricted by the league, but no agreement was found over its obligations.

Taking from this, the Brexit negotiators should quickly settle all financial obligations, to avoid a protracted argument over the country’s outstanding debt – rumoured to be around €60 billion. If not, the UK could end up fighting for years over something that could be settled from the get go.

2. Think about future cooperation

Not all ties can be cut, and countries commonly retain some form of technical cooperation. After Japan withdrew in 1935, it continued to participate in subsidiaries such as the league’s own health organisation, and continued to administer a territory allocated by the league.

The EU and UK could certainly continue to cooperate on shared interests: international terrorism, border security and energy, for example. But a hard Brexit and diplomatic posturing could potentially disrupt the delicate balance of all parties’ interests in these areas.

3. Don’t forget details

In 1933 the Nazi regime in Germany felt its departure from the league would leave it unconstrained in the international realm. However, the country’s existing disarmament obligations wrecked the withdrawal process. Although the regime paid its debt to the league in full, other obligations – for example, regarding the protection of religious minorities – allowed the league to consider possible sanctions in case of withdrawal. Unfortunately, the league members never agreed on appropriate sanctions.

While there is no strong analogy here between Germany and the UK, the league experience demonstrates that separate but entangled legal bodies can constrain withdrawal. There has already been heated discussion over how the UK’s departure would impact the Good Friday agreements in Northern Ireland and the status of Gibraltar, debates which are bound to continue over the next two years.

4. Work within the framework

For an organisation that had 58 members at its height, the list of league withdrawals is damning. Larger countries such as Germany, Japan and Italy as well as the smaller Guatemala and El Salvador all left the organisation, leaving it with just 34 member nations at the time of its final demise in 1947.

In 1919, Wilson thought that “the fetish of state sovereignty” would be the chief obstacle to the league’s success – and in some ways he was right. Though the departures of Guatemala and El Salvador were a consequence of the league’s waning influence in the 1930s, the cases of Germany, Japan and Italy reveal a different story. They were mid-sized countries with international ambitions but increasingly at odds with the league’s method of public deliberation and consensus-based governance. Instead, the trio opted for unilateral action and a confrontational style of diplomacy.

These countries were adamant to retain their national sovereignty, to “take back control”. But rather than putting these countries on a course for cooperation, it led to confrontation, eventually resulting in World War II.

5. Something might go wrong

The importance of a future relationship makes a complete disruption of relations between the EU and the UK unlikely. But mutual dependency may falter if there is a fundamental disagreement, and a dispute could lead to trade barriers and retaliations. While the league was chiefly a political organisation, the EU represents an integrated political and economic entity which could make the UK’s life outside isolated and difficult.

While there are no perfect analogies, the League of Nations experience shows just how complicated it can be to withdraw from an international organisation. The importance of future relations makes goodwill from both sides essential to conclude an agreement on the terms of departure – and both the UK and EU would do well to heed these lessons going forward.