Love knows no boundaries, but when it comes to separation things can get complicated. Each year in the European Union, more than one divorce in 10 involves a couple who do not share the same nationality.
Euronews spoke to Marie, a French mother has been living a nightmare ever since divorcing her German ex-husband, four years ago, she showed us the void that was left in her life without her children there:
“This is Astrid’s room,” she said. “My daughter who comes once a month for a weekend. It is the visiting rights that I’ve had to fight hard for and so far it’s been respected. On the other hand, my son has his room waiting for him. The wardrobe is full of his clothes. Things that I bought two years ago which he has never worn.”
Marie has just moved to Saarbrucken in Germany in the hope of seeing more of her children who are six and nine. The German authorities revoked custody rights saying she imposes an abduction risk, when the father filed a complaint after she took the children on holiday to France without his consent.
“I fought for 18 months to at least try to see my children,” said Marie. “Every time I tried to approach them, the police were called either by the school, family or someone else. They thought I was there to take my children away.”
“Instead of helping to fix things, I have the opposite feeling, the German justice system makes things worse for the parent who’s already abroad and finding it difficult, so there’s really the impression that whatever we do we are prejudged.”
Isolation and lack of knowledge of the laws and attitudes in a foreign country often exacerbate conflicts. In family law, the rules vary widely among cultures. That is why legal tools have had to be developed to treat cross-border cases.
The issue of parents abducting children is dealt with by the Hague Convention and EU law known as Brussels II bis. In most cases the child is returned quickly to their country of origin.
Jean-Patrick Revel, a Franco-German family affairs lawyer explained in more detail.
“This regulation hands jurisdiction to the court where the child lived with its family before the separation. It is the judge in that country that holds a hearing and makes a ruling on custody, where there will be an investigation to see what is best for the child”
Brussels based NGO, Child Focus, is familiar with these issues. It manages calls to the European emergency number for missing children, 116 000. In about one in four cases, it is a parental abduction.
Hilde Demarré the Child Focus project manager said:
“We saw in Germany, for instance, that they had 700 cases last year, so we see that this is a problem that arises more and more within Europe. We also know that there are about 170,000 international divorces within the European Union each year, so we know that this is a problem that will continue to grow.”
The NGO supports parents who are victims. Gerd Blömer-Pohl a German citizen and a father of three, was living in Belgium with his Ukrainian wife when one day everything changed.
“I returned from my work on a Friday night, and the apartment was empty. The furniture was still there but the kids were gone along with my wife. I didn’t understand, the phone was disconnected, for a few days I was going crazy,” he said.
It took several months to locate the mother, who had moved across the border to Germany. To resolve this type of conflict, along with judicial measures, amicable solutions are often the most effective. Hilde Demarré is convinced of this, and has just started a European network of family mediators.
“We try to find family mediators or mediators in every EU country, also some candidate countries, which we gave training, they all came to Brussels to do 60 to 80 hours training and they learn to work together in mediation. We have a model of co-mediation, working with one mediator from each country, and they were trained to mediate together in one single model.”
The German NGO MiKK is a partner of this project. It specialises in mediation of international child abduction cases. Christoph Paul is both a lawyer and mediator for the organisation, he said:
“It is the parents who find a solution, who are responsible for the child, the parents who are the experts of the child’s life”
“It is not only the knowledge in the mediation field, you also have to know something about cultural diversity, how to handle that. And you also have to know very much about the legal framework within Europe, so if you have a case for example with Belgium and Germany, you have to know how that doesn’t work only in the Belgium and in the German legal framework but also in the international cross-border legal framework.”
Fifteen European countries have gone ahead with measures to facilitate international divorces. A new regulation entitled Rome III now allows couples to choose which country’s law they want to apply to if they separate.
So a Spanish woman and Frenchman married and living together in Italy can for example choose to divorce using either Spanish, French or Italian laws. Bruno Langhendries is a legal advisor helping foreign people know their rights, he says:
“The Rome III regulation has not been created as a joint divorce procedure, because ideas of family life are very different throughout Union.The purpose of regulation is to find rules of harmonisation and legal certainty. It fights against the rush to court, against the fact that a spouse is quick to appear before the court of a Member State which would better protect his or her interests.”
With closer cooperation, and professionals from different countries offering more information, there are now many services available to help international couples untie the knot.