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26th Feb 2017

Twelve EU states inch closer to common divorce rules

  • Half of EU's mixed nationality couples don't live happily ever after (Photo: European Commission)

Mixed nationality couples from twelve EU countries may get simpler and fairer divorce rules after MEPs in charge of legal affairs unanimously backed a first ever request for 'enhanced co-operation', a controversial solution allowing groups of countries to go their own way when they can't get consensus among all 27 EU states.

"We are giving couples more freedom and choice on their divorce, which is a difficult moment in their lives," Polish centre-right MEP Tadeusz Zwiefka said during the committee meeting on Tuesday (1 June).

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The committee vote gives a positive signal to EU justice ministers, who are set to endorse the initiative on Friday in Luxembourg. A formal consent by the parliament's plenary is likely to follow later this month or in July.

Under the proposal, mixed couples or spouses living in different EU countries would be able to choose which country's law governs their divorce, so long there is a connection to that country, either by nationality or common residence.

Each year in the EU there are over 350,000 cross-border marriages and 170,000 divorces, representing 20 percent of all EU divorces. Germany, France and the UK are the countries with the highest rates of international divorces.

Some 60 percent of Europe's citizens expect the EU to play a role in facilitating cross-border divorces, a flash Eurobarometer survey on family law shows.

The member states behind the initiative are limited to Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Romania, Slovenia and Spain, but others may join at any stage.

These countries decided to move ahead on their own after discussions among all 27 member states failed in 2008, due to differences between some of the more liberal Nordic countries and the conservative south, with Malta, for instance, not even recognising divorces, only legal separations.

Greece initially backed the proposal, but then withdrew in February this year after the new government in Athens decided not to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor.

If the initiative is implemented, it will be for the first time since the procedure of "enhanced co-operation" was enshrined in the EU treaty, back in 1997.

The Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in December, expanded EU the areas where this compromise solution can be applied, including to defence matters.

The prospect of member states clubbing together in interest groups and avoiding EU consensus led to fierce criticism when the procedure was taken up and expanded to foreign and security matters in the Treaty of Nice, which came into force in 2003.

Back in 2000, when the Treaty of Nice was being negotiated, current British deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, then a Liberal MEP, was one of the fiercest critics of "enhanced co-operation", warning that it could shake the very foundation of the European Union.

British Liberal MEP Andrew Duff, one of the veterans of the European Parliament, was also part of the negotiations back then and a critic of the procedure.

"It is a very good experiment that finally we had the courage to try it in family law – always a very sensitive area because of national and cultural predilections," he told this website.

But he warned that if this practice became "too extensive", the EU's internal "tensions of cohesion would begin to grow" although the practice of cooperation among certain member states has also been successful - such as in the eurozone or the border-free area also known as Schengen.

Asked if he saw Britain joining the divorce initiative at a later stage, Mr Duff said it was "always possible", but that in general, the UK took its time with jumping on board such projects.

EUobserver's latest video debate features MEPs Renate Weber, Nessa Childers and Tadeusz Zwiefka talking about the current situation for international couples filing for divorce in Europe.

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