RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
2017 is set to be the year when the European Union breaks up. The U.K. is moving forward with its Brexit plans, and they're using one of the EU's own constitutional rules to do it. It's a law called Article 50. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money podcast explains why the union has a built-in exit clause.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Creating the European Union doesn't really sound like a job that someone would have, but for Kimmo Kiljunen it was his life's work. Kimmo is from Finland, longtime parliament member, and he's one of the architects of the EU.
You're a founding father.
KIMMO KILJUNEN: We the founding fathers (laughter) felt so strongly that now we are creating United States of Europe now.
SMITH: During the '90s, Kimmo spent years in small conference rooms hammering out treaties, trying to make this union come together. It was incredibly hard. It meant juggling the interest of dozens of countries, trying to overcome cultural differences and language barriers. Everything had to be filtered through translators into more than 20 different languages. Even something as simple as cracking a joke was a nightmare.
KILJUNEN: 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 15 seconds more, the rest are laughing when they have been translated from English to their national languages.
SMITH: Kimmo and the other European delegates went through that process for every law and every decision. What should the European anthem be? Should we have an army? Where should the Parliament sit?
KILJUNEN: Usually they were very, very, very intensive, the days, very long days.
SMITH: But even after all of those debates many countries were still skittish, so in the last treaty that made up the EU's constitutional laws Kimmo and the other EU architects did what they had to do. They added Article 50, which was basically a prenup.
KILJUNEN: No. Having divorce option.
KILJUNEN: We are not Catholic in the way that this - you must be - when you are married once you are up to the life.
SMITH: Delegates from other countries would come to Kimmo with all kinds of concerns - that the EU would look like the U.S. with a really strong centralized government, or worried their own country's interests and values would get lost. And Kimmo would always point to Article 50. He'd say this is not the United States. We have an exit clause.
KILJUNEN: Here you see you are always saying that we are creating the United State of Europe here. No, we are not creating. There's an exit clause. You see it.
SMITH: When the documents were signed and the EU was official, Kimmo says it was one of the proudest days of his life. Then the financial crisis happened, there were bank bailouts, austerity measures, a Syrian refugee crisis. And the U.K. said this union is not working for us anymore and Brexit happened.
KILJUNEN: To be honest, I never would imagine that any country of - a member state of European Union would leave union.
SMITH: Kimmo was devastated. He said he didn't even believe it at first. Still, he says, Brexit is progress.
KILJUNEN: It wasn't a war. Usually these type of fundamental breaks are results of war. That's a positive side.
SMITH: But this civilized exit option could mean the end of the EU. Politicians and citizens across Europe have been critical of the EU, and there has been talk of other countries leaving, too. Still, Kimmo says, if he had to do it again, he would still include Article 50.
So you don't regret Article 50?
KILJUNEN: Absolutely no. I don't regret.
SMITH: Later this year, the U.K. is expected to trigger Article 50 and begin the long, probably painful process of leaving the EU. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN AND THE BAD PLUS SONG, "FRIEND OR FOE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.