E.U. Moves to Make Cross-Border Divorce Easier

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By easing the freedom of movement, the European Union has literally brought people together: an estimated 350,000 cross-border marriages take place every year, with Lithuanians finding love in London, and Spaniards tying the knot in Toulouse. But, just as member states inevitably enter into political and diplomatic scuffs, a number of international marriages break down every year: 40% of the E.U.'s cross-border couples divorce annually, accounting for 16% of all E.U. divorces.

And while all divorcees must cope with soul-searching and bouts of misery, international couples contend with the added burden of legal uncertainty and bureaucratic complication. If a Danish man and a Greek woman living in Berlin choose to divorce, they must decide whose law to use to split up their assets — an often divisive process that can add more lawyers, more legal fees and more heartache to already tense proceedings.

But that's set to change. Following months of maneuvering, the European Parliament will by this fall confirm measures to standardize the process for international couples going their separate ways. Under the new arrangement, divorcing couples will choose which nation's laws apply to them. That means a Belgian-Hungarian couple living in France can end their union following Belgian, Hungarian or French rules. In cases where couples can't agree, courts will have a common formula for deciding the jurisdiction, starting with the guiding principle that the law of the country where the couple usually lives will apply. Legal clarity, officials say, will ease the pain of divorce.

E.U. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, who unveiled the proposals in March, believes they will help the thousands of couples stranded in legal limbo by providing clear answers to questions that national systems have left wide open. "I do not want people in the E.U. to be left to manage complicated international divorces alone," she said. "I want them to have clear rules so that they always know where they stand."

Proponents hope the new rules will end the practice of "divorce shopping," in which one spouse seeks to gain an unfair advantage by filing in the jurisdiction offering the most favorable terms. For example, a philandering Englishwoman married to a Frenchman would likely seek divorce in Britain: its "wife-friendly" laws frequently result in generous spousal maintenance, entitle women to up to half of all marital assets and, in certain cases, discard prenuptial agreements. Her husband would doubtless prefer a divorce in France: French law excludes a person's inherited wealth and assets acquired before the marriage from the pool of divisible marital property.

Other advocates say a reformed system could save more marriages. David Hodson, a lawyer at the London-based International Family Law Group, believes the current rules hasten moves to end rather than mend faltering marriages. "Because so much money is at stake, people rush to proceedings sooner than they would need to, rather than seeking to save their marriage through mediation," he says.

Despite those apparent benefits, many E.U. countries still oppose common divorce rules. Politicians in Sweden, which has relatively liberal divorce laws, worry that the proposal will force its courts to base judgments on the harsher laws of other E.U. countries. And a 2006 report from the Swedish Ministry of Justice warned that blanket laws issued from above could eventually lead European courts to apply restrictive divorce laws from non-E.U. countries like Pakistan. The U.K., which has become the most popular venue for Europe's high-stakes divorces, says E.U. divorce law will threaten its tradition of looking at legal precedence and applying local law. Malta, whose population is 98% Catholic, has objected too: it's the only member state that does not allow divorce.

E.U. unanimity rules stymied efforts to reform divorce laws for years. But in March Reding decided to act under so-called "enhanced co-operation," an E.U. decision-making process that allows like-minded countries to move ahead with legislation without agreement from all 27 member states. This builds on other precedents that have created a two-track Europe. Like the euro currency and the Schengen passport rules, the common divorce laws will only apply in the countries that sign up. So far, 14 member states — including France and Germany, the member states with the largest share of international divorces — have agreed to the compromise formula, although more may join. And even though Sweden and the U.K. will not be part of the pioneering group, they voted to back the measure for the others.

Critics say the new rules may open the door to further bureaucratic complexity. Given the E.U.'s track record, that may prove true. But for now one thing is certain: with around seven million foreign E.U. nationals living in another member state, the E.U. will see more international marriages — and more international divorces — in the years to come. The new rules can't change that, but they may finally make it easier for people to end their European unions.