New cross-border divorce rules for 14 EU countries

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Fourteen EU member states earlier this week (12 July) used a pioneering cooperation law to press ahead with plans to simplify divorce rules for couples of different nationalities.

European Union governments gave the 14 states the go-ahead on Monday, a moment described as "historic" by EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.

Couples in these countries will be able to choose which country's law applies to their divorce, helping them avoid potentially long and expensive proceedings. The countries are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Spain.

Enhanced cooperation

It is the first time the EU has used an "enhanced cooperation" clause, foreseen in the treaties and that allows a group of at least nine countries to take joint steps in an area where they cannot secure the agreement of all 27 member states.

"Today's vote is historic. I am very proud that the Council [of EU governments] took the brave decision to use this legislative tool for the first time. Painful experiences for international couples and their children will soon be made easier," said Commissioner Reding.

The 14 countries had been frustrated with the failure to make progress with Commission proposals on divorce in 2006. The European Parliament and EU justice ministers have already backed the moves on which the 14 have agreed.

The Commission said there were more than one million divorces in the EU in 2007, of which 140,000 – 13% – involved couples of different nationalities. According to the agreement, if a couple cannot agree which country's law should apply to their divorce, judges will have a common formula to decide on their behalf.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

The EU Law Blog described the decision as "a significant moment in European Union law's history. There has been a lot of talk on enhanced cooperation since the Treaty of Amsterdam (see for example here and here). Now, for the first time, it is being used in practice".

He added that while "from my perspective this is a useful development, since it can allow member states to bring more flexibility into the integration process [...] it is quite obvious that its use will remain quite limited".

UK Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim called on the countries who want to take part in new EU proposals for a cross-border divorce law to "respect the countries who do not want to make divorce an easier option".

Karim added that "we have to ask whether it should be a policy priority of the EU to make divorce easier. Instead, surely we should be encouraging people to look at the long term consequences of divorce and setting policies that place the family at the centre of society. However, if some EU countries want to go ahead with these plans, that is their choice and the EU should be flexible".

"My major concern is that Commissioner Reding has made no secret of her wish to harmonise civil law across the EU and this proposal could be seen as the first step in a concrete plan to bring all EU nations under the new law. The commission and the ten countries that want to go ahead should respect the 17 countries that do not," he concluded.  

Former Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini proposed to harmonise divorce procedures for cross-border couples in 2006 (EURACTIV 19/07/06).

However, his plans met with tough opposition from some member states. Although 20 or so countries favoured a clearer legislative set-up, the proposal was blocked in the EU Council of Ministers.

However, the European Commission decided to go ahead with a group of vanguard countries, using the 'enhanced cooperation' mechanism contained in the EU treaties (EURACTIV 18/03/10).

"Thousands of couples find themselves in difficult personal situations because national legal systems have so far failed to provide clear answers," said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding (EURACTIV 24/03/10).

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