This piece was written by Helga Luku, PhD researcher at the University of Antwerp
On 7 December 2022, the European Commission adopted a Proposal for a Regulation which aims to harmonize at the EU level the rules of private international law with regard to parenthood. This proposal aims to provide legal certainty and predictability for families in cross-border situations. They currently face administrative burdens when they travel, move or reside in another Member State (for family or professional reasons), and seek to have parenthood recognised in this other Member State. The proposal follows on a declaration two years ago by the Commission President von der Leyen in her State of the Union address that “If you are a parent in one country, you are a parent in every country”.
How will this proposal change the current situation?
In line with the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU, Member States are required to recognise parenthood for the purpose of the rights that the child derives from Union law, permitting a child who is a Union citizen, to exercise without impediment, with each parent, the right to move and reside freely within the territory of Member States. Thus, parenthood established in one Member State should be recognised in other Member States for some (limited) purposes. There is currently no specific EU legislation that requires Member States to recognise parenthood established in other Member States for all purposes.
Different substantive and conflict-of-law rules of Member States on the establishment and recognition of parenthood can lead to a denial of the rights that children derive from national law, such as their succession or maintenance rights, or their right to have any one of their parents act as their legal representative in another Member State on matters such as medical treatment or schooling. Thus, the proposal aims to protect the fundamental rights of children and as it is claimed by the Commission, to be in full compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Through the proposed Regulation, the Commission intends to enable children, who move within the Union to benefit from the rights that derive from national law, regardless of:
- the nationality of the children or the parents (on the condition that the document that establishes or proves the parenthood is issued in a Member State);
- how the child was conceived or born (thus including conception with assisted reproductive technology);
- the type of family of the child (including e.g. the recognition of same-sex parenthood or parenthood established through adoption).
In principle, the proposal does not interfere with substantive national law in matters related to parenthood, which are and will remain under the competence of Member States. However, by putting the children’s rights and best interests in the spotlight of the proposal, the Commission is requiring Member States to disregard their reluctance toward the recognition of some types of parenthood.
As the Union aspires an area of freedom and justice, in which the free movement of persons, access to justice and full respect of fundamental rights are guaranteed, the Commission proposes the adoption of Union rules on international jurisdiction and applicable law in order to facilitate the recognition of parenthood among the Member States. It covers not only the recognition of judgments but also the recognition and acceptance of authentic instruments. In this sense, the proposal covers the three main pillars of private international law and it will also introduce a European Certificate on Parenthood.
The main aspects of this proposal include:
- Jurisdiction: jurisdiction shall lie alternatively with the Member State of habitual residence of the child, of the nationality of the child, of the habitual residence of the respondent (e.g. the person in respect of whom the child claims parenthood), of the habitual residence of any one of the parents, of the nationality of any one of the parents, or of the birth of the child. Party autonomy is excluded. (Chapter II, articles 6-15)
- The applicable law: as a rule, the law applicable to the establishment of parenthood should be the law of the State of the habitual residence of the person giving birth. If the habitual residence of the person giving birth cannot be established, then the law of the State of the birth of the child should apply. Exceptions are foreseen for the situation where the parenthood of a second person cannot be established under the applicable law. (Chapter III, articles 16-23).
- Recognition: the proposal provides for the recognition of court decisions and authentic instruments with binding legal effects, which establish parenthood, without any special procedure being required. However, if one of the limited grounds for refusal is found to exist, competent authorities of Member States can refuse the recognition of parenthood established by a court decision or an authentic instrument with binding effects. (Chapter IV, articles 24-43)
- Acceptance: the proposal also provides for the acceptance of authentic instruments with no binding legal effect. These instruments do not have a binding legal effect because they do not establish parenthood, but they refer to its prior establishment by other means or to other facts, thereby having only evidentiary effects. It may be a birth certificate, a parenthood certificate, an extract of birth from the register or any other form. The acceptance of these instruments with evidentiary effects can be refused only on public policy grounds. (Chapter V, articles 44-45)
- Creation of a European Certificate of Parenthood: children or their legal representatives can request it from the Member State in which the parenthood was established. This Certificate will be issued in a uniform standard form and will be available in all Union languages. It is not mandatory but children or their legal representatives have the right to request it and have it recognised in all Member States (chapter VI, articles 46-57).
What is next?
Since the current proposal concerns family law issues with cross-border implications, under Article 81(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the Council shall act unanimously via a special legislative procedure after consulting the European Parliament. Besides the sensitive area the proposal regulates, it also adopts a pro-diversity and non-discrimination policy, including the recognition of same-sex parenthood and surrogacy. Thus, considering the different approaches and national identities of Member States, often associated with their more conservative or liberal convictions, unanimity will not be easy to reach. However, if unanimity cannot be reached, a number of Member States can still adopt the proposal in enhanced cooperation (see: Article 20 Treaty on European Union). This is not an uncommon procedure for Member States when they have to adopt legislation that concerns family law issues, e.g. Regulation 1259/2010 on the law applicable to divorce and legal separation (Rome III) and Regulation 2016/1103 on jurisdiction, applicable law and the recognition and enforcement of decisions in matters of matrimonial property regimes. However, if it happens that the proposal is adopted in enhanced cooperation, it is doubtful whether its objective to provide the same rights for all children is truly achieved. Additionally, the participating Member States will probably include those that did not impose very restrictive requirements with regard to the recognition of parenthood in their national laws, even before the adoption of the Regulation in enhanced cooperation.