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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Viviane Reding

Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner

Making sure European area of Justice works for international couples and their children

Press conference on launch of information campaign on parental child abduction and child custody with MEP Roberta Angelilli

Strasbourg, 15 April 2014

1. Introduction

In Europe more and more citizens fall in love across borders, couples and families are increasingly formed between citizens from different Member States. And of course, unfortunately such international couples also separate.

Almost 15 million citizens live in an EU country which is not their country of origin. We estimate that each year, there are about 140,000 international divorces in the Union.

Family break-ups are by nature always difficult: not only because of the emotional distress but also because of legal disputes about marriage, and litigation concerning responsibility over children. When break-ups occur across borders, additional legal difficulties arise because of the complexity of the situation. As every Member State maintains its own system of family law, partners often have to navigate between different, and sometimes conflicting national rules.

Citizens are entitled to expect predictable and clear rules in such situations. Europe needs to have the right rules in place to provide legal clarity in the area of family law, especially where children are involved.

2. The Brussels IIa Regulation

A milestone in the creation of a common judicial area in European family law is the legal instrument that is known as the "Brussels IIa Regulation".

Since 2005, this Regulation has helped determine which court is competent to review a case for divorce, legal separation and parental responsibility. The Regulation also facilitates the recognition and enforcement of judgments, so that decisions on these matters given in one Member State are recognised in another Member State and have legal effect without any obstacles.

The vulnerable situation of children, whose best interests must always come first, becomes even more vulnerable in cross-border situations. Every year, thousands of children in the EU are affected by cross-border conflicts of international couples, and end up becoming hostages to long legal disputes to determine parental responsibility. In some cases, sadly, children may even be abducted by one of the parents.

Thanks to the Brussels IIa Regulation which contains a set of clear rules that the child must be immediately returned to the place of his or her habitual residence, we have taken concrete action to put an to such difficult and horrifying situations.

3. The Commission's Implementation Report of the Brussels IIa Regulation

I am pleased that the implementation report adopted today by the European Commission on the Brussels IIa Regulation clearly shows that so far, it has worked well and helped resolving many cross-border family matters.

It has no doubt delivered good solutions for those involved in proceedings.

But our report also points to some shortcomings, which I do believe we need to address. Let me name a few:

  • In parental responsibility matters obstacles remain for the recognition and enforcement of decisions relating to the custody of children, whereas simplified procedures already apply to other areas of family law, such as access rights. This causes unnecessary complications and delays for parents who legitimately except a judgement to take immediate effect.

  • Another prominent example concerns the hearing of the child. In matters of custody rights, where additional formalities still apply, the recognition of a judgment is frequently opposed on the ground that the judgement was delivered without the child being given an opportunity to be heard.

  • Similarly, an order for the return of the child in cases of parental abduction will only be automatically enforced if the court certifies that safeguards have been applied, in particular, that the child has been heard. The fact that differences in national rules on the right of the child to be heard get in the way of enforcing decisions from other Member States is a very serious problem.

We certainly cannot solve every single difficult family case, but we need to look for systemic solutions.

4. What’s the solution?

The bedrock of judicial cooperation in family law is the principle of mutual recognition. But for mutual recognition to work well, mutual trust is a must. We need to consolidate this trust for people to be able to reap the full benefits of solutions offered by European family law.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights establishes a first layer of minimum safeguards by ensuring that, throughout the Union, the parties have a right to a fair trial and a right to an effective remedy and that the rights of a child are protected. The respect of fundamental rights is an important building block for mutual trust. But the Charter cannot alone fulfil this task.

That's why we need the Brussels IIa Regulation. One of our main achievements so far, has been that in the most difficult cases concerning children, the Commission facilitated bilateral meetings of central authorities, whose role is to support parents in the return of the child proceedings. This has helped in finding swift solutions to the benefit of the children. But we need to go further.

The differences in national rules and the resulting complexity, are a serious obstacle to achieving legal clarity in cross-border family matters. Rules remain largely unknown to bi-national couples, who learn about them only when serious problems occur, usually when the papers regarding custody of children have to be submitted to the court.

To help overcome this problem, today we are launching together with Vice-President Angelilli a campaign to provide a series of tools to international couples to make them better aware of national and European provisions on child custody and child abduction.

I want to thank Ms Angelilli for being a tireless champion for this cause and for keeping the problems of international families high up in the political agenda.

In addition to the campaign, the Commission is kicking off today a wide public consultation on how we can further improve the existing rules in the area of family law.

Over the next three months, we want to gather opinions and experiences of the practitioners, judges, lawyers and citizens so as to get a better picture of remaining challenges and possible solutions.

Conclusion

Europe has come a long way in developing family law. Over the past thirteen years we have taken a series of steps which, together, constitute a giant leap forward on the road towards a true European area of Justice.

We have laid the foundations of mutual trust, but we must now reinforce that trust so that citizens can reap the full benefits of a true European justice area that works for international couples – even when they have to go through a break-up.

The report adopted today, together with the launch of the campaign and the public consultations will help us finding effective solutions to the benefit of all EU citizens.


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