EU: Simplifying divorces could lead to promotion of sharia law

Proposals to simplify divorce in the European Union are running into opposition from governments fearful that the initiative may oblige their courts to enforce foreign laws that clash with their tolerant social norms.

Sweden is leading the charge against a European Commission plan to make it easier for couples of different nationality, and couples who live outside their native country, to divorce each other.

As one of the world's most liberal-minded countries, Sweden is hardly opposed to more humane and efficient divorce procedures.

Rather, the main Swedish objection is that the Commission's proposal, first unveiled in July 2006, would in many cases result in the application of divorce laws from the country in which the couple had their most recent residence.

In EU states with Muslim immigrant populations – including Sweden, with its Iranian, Iraqi and Pakistani communities – this would mean the enforcement of Islamic divorce laws.

The Swedes view this prospect as unacceptable, because it would prevent Swedish courts from upholding bedrock national principles of sexual equality. "Swedish courts should apply Swedish law," one official said.

Needless to say, it was never the Commission's intention to promote sharia law in Europe. Rather, the original idea of simplifying divorce stemmed from the realisation that many people working for the EU in Brussels were in mixed-nationality marriages that were breaking up.

The Commission hoped to help such couples by giving them more rights to choose the country in which they would get divorced.

But "Eurocrat" marriages and divorces form a small part of the overall picture in Europe. According to an October 2006 document prepared by family law experts at Manches, a UK legal firm, there are about 2.2m marriages every year in the EU, of which 350,000 involve an international couple.

Of the 875,000 annual divorces in the EU, 16 per cent are international in nature, they estimate.

For mixed-nationality couples, it is a genuine problem that divorce laws vary so widely across the 27 member states. Under Spain's new fast-track, no-fault laws, a person needs to have been married for only three months before he or she can get divorced. At the other end of the spectrum, Malta bans divorce altogether.

Different ways of treating pre-nuptial agreements, marital property and maintenance for spouses and children mean that, in an international marriage, it can be of crucial importance which national court has jurisdiction.

Although liberal countries such as Finland and the Netherlands have expressed sympathy with Sweden, France and Germany support the Commission's plan, as does Slovenia, the new holder of the EU's rotating presidency.

Germany even suggested last year that an international couple should sign a pre-wedding contract specifying the country in which they would get divorced if they fell out.

The Commission's proposal has not gone well with conservative Roman Catholic countries such as Malta and Poland, which dislike the idea of easier divorce.

Meanwhile, the UK questions the need for policy­makers in Brussels to stick their noses into delicate matters of family law and will exercise its right to opt out of any legislation.

With a key meeting of divorce experts from member states approaching on January 21, the EU looks no closer to reaching a compromise than a roomful of quarrelling husbands and wives.

Source: Financial Times (English) h/t Mitt Sverige (Swedish)

See also: Sweden: Don't give Islamic laws a place in Sweden, Sweden: The problems of civil divorce

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