Thursday 7 May 2015

Irreconcilable Differences? Divorce and departure of EU citizens under the Citizens’ Directive

Steve Peers

What happens when a marriage between an EU citizen (who has moved to another Member State) and a non-EU citizen ends, after the EU citizen has already left that Member State? The EU Citizens’ Directive contains rules on both issues (divorce and departure), but those rules appear to conflict with each other nearly as much as divorcing couples do. An Advocate-General’s opinion today in the important case of Singh addresses these issues (there is a reference pending from the UK on these issues also). But unfortunately, this opinion is fundamentally flawed, and the Court of Justice should take an entirely different approach than the one which the Advocate-General recommends.


EU free movement legislation, in the form of the Citizens’ Directive, gives EU citizens the right (subject to certain conditions) to move to another Member State, joined or accompanied by their spouse and other specified family members. But what happens if that marriage ends? According to the CJEU case law beginning with Diatta, a ‘spouse’ remains a spouse (and therefore still entitled to derived free movement rights, if that spouse is a non-EU citizen) even if the couple in question is separated, up until the date when the divorce becomes final. After the divorce, the Court ruled in case law starting with Baumbast that since the Regulation on free movement of workers gives the children of EU workers (or former workers) a right of access to education, they were entitled to stay on the territory to exercise that right, and the non-EU parent who cared for that child had a right to stay too (regardless of any divorce from the EU citizen), otherwise the child’s right would be ineffective.

Other cases where a marriage between an EU citizen and a non-EU citizen end are regulated by the citizens’ Directive. Article 12(2) of that Directive provides for the non-EU family members to retain residence rights in some cases if the citizen dies. Article 12(3) provides for the non-EU family members to retain residence rights if there are children left behind who are still studying, where the EU citizen dies or leaves the host Member State. Article 13(2) then specifies the right to remain of non-EU family members, in the event of divorce or end of a registered partnership. There are four alternative possibilities for retaining the right of residence in this case. The first possibility allows the right to be retained if the marriage or partnership has lasted at least three years, including at least one in the host Member State, ‘prior to the initiation of the divorce or annulment proceedings or termination of the registered partnership’. (After five years’ legal residence, the non-EU family members obtain permanent residence status; the complications arise in the period beforehand).

The Singh case, referred from the Irish courts, concerns three divorcing couples. In each case, the EU citizen first of all departed Ireland, leaving the non-EU spouse behind, and then initiated divorce proceedings.  So in a case involving both a departure and a divorce, what rules govern the situation?

The opinion

The Advocate-General states that Article 12(3) of the Directive sets out an exhaustive list of cases where a non-EU family member can retain residence rights after an EU citizen leaves the host Member State (presumably leaving aside the Regulation on free movement of workers, which is only relevant when there are also children involved). Conversely, the Advocate-General believes that Article 13 ‘is intended, in principle, to apply only to cases where both spouses are still residing in the host State until the time of the divorce’. If the EU legislature had wanted to create an exception to the rules on departure for cases relating to divorce, it would have done so expressly.  So Article 13 can only apply where a divorce claim is made before the EU citizen leaves the host Member State. Articles 12 and 13 can only be applied together in the cases referred to in Article 12(3), ie where the EU citizen has departed and there are children in education. This analysis is supported for reasons of legal certainty: it cannot be clear when an EU citizen departs that a marriage will end in divorce or not.

Therefore, in the Advocate-General’s view, once an EU citizen departs from that State without first initiating divorce proceedings, the non-EU citizen left behind loses the right to reside under EU law. On the other hand, if the divorce proceedings are initiated before the EU citizen leaves that Member State, then Article 13(2) applies and the non-EU ex-spouses will retain a right to stay if they meet the other conditions set out there. She admits the inequity in distinguishing between these two cases. However, problems could be avoided if the non-EU citizen accompanied the EU citizen, or began divorce proceedings in the host Member State before the EU citizen left.

She also rejects any relevance of the right to family life and private life referred to in Article 7 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, since there is no family life to protect any longer in the case of a divorce. However, the Charter would protect the position of a non-EU spouse in an ‘intact’ marriage with an EU citizen who had moved to another Member State.

Finally, the opinion confirms prior case law to the effect that an EU citizen can also rely on resources provided by his or her non-EU family member in order to qualify for free movement rights.


With great respect, this opinion is highly problematic. The starting point is an over-literal interpretation of the relationship between the rules on departure and divorce in the EU citizens’ Directive. This leads the Advocate-General to suggest an interpretation which fails to take account of the consequences of her argument, and leads to results which were surely not intended by the EU legislature.

Let’s start with the purportedly literal interpretation of the Directive. In fact, there is nothing in the wording of Article 12(3) (like the words ‘only’ or ‘except where’) that clearly indicate that it sets out an exhaustive list of cases where non-EU citizens get to stay despite the EU citizens’ departure. We can turn the Advocate-General’s argument on its head here: if the EU legislature had wanted to create an exception to the rules on divorce for cases relating to departure, it would have done so expressly. Anyway, two of the four grounds for obtaining legal residence in the event of divorce (access to children and custody of children) will usually cross over with the grounds to remain after departure referred to in Article 12(3). If Article 12(3) were the only ground for the right to stay after departure, the reference to these cases in Article 13(2) is therefore largely redundant.

As for the argument based on legal certainty, applying a rule based on ‘departure’ of an EU citizen simply does not create any such certainty either. The Advocate-General herself argues for an exception where a marriage is intact despite a cross-border separation, but how can we know if that is the case?  How long a period in another Member State is necessary to count as a ‘departure’? What if the EU citizen decides to come back to the host State? What about cases where the EU citizen steps outside for the proverbial pack of cigarettes – and then goes missing?

Furthermore, the substance of the Advocate-General’s own argument is legally unclear. She mostly refers generally to the departure on an EU citizen from a Member State taking precedence over the rules on divorce set out in Article 13(2). But at one point, she makes a distinction based on whether the divorce application was filed before or after the EU citizen left the host Member State. Which is it? It’s a crucial distinction, because for the other three categories of cases where non-EU citizens retain residence rights despite a divorce (custody of children, access to children, domestic violence), there’s no reference to when the divorce proceedings were initiated. Anyway, her acceptance that the timing of the application for divorce might be relevant for the interpretation of the rules on departure undercuts her basic argument that Article 12(3) constitutes the only basis for non-EU citizens retaining a right of residence following the EU citizen’s departure.

What about the Advocate-General’s suggested solutions? It would be highly awkward, to say the least, to expect the estranged non-EU spouse to accompany his or her family member to another Member State, even though (according to the CJEU’s case law) they would not have to live under the same roof in that country. In any event, the family member would not have a right (under EU law) to accompany an EU citizen who moved to a third country (besides those covered by EU free movement rules: the EEA states and Switzerland). And it would be outrageous to conclude that the estranged non-EU spouse should follow an EU citizen in domestic violence cases.

The Advocate-General doesn’t mention the possibility that the non-EU family member could obtain rights under the EU’s long-term residence Directive, by adding periods of prior legal stay in that Member State to the time spent as the family member of an EU citizen. But not all non-EU citizens have had such a period of prior legal stay; and that Directive anyway does not apply to the UK, Ireland and Denmark.

The prospect of the non-EU spouse bringing divorce proceedings first depends on the interpretation of the EU’s rules on civil jurisdiction, which give jurisdiction to the courts of the Member State where one or both spouses are ‘habitually resident’. But that term is not defined in the Regulation, and so it might be argued that the courts of the host State, at least in some cases, will not have jurisdiction. Anyway, it is not unreasonable to expect the non-EU citizen concerned to devote his or her efforts to saving the marriage – and it’s even possible that he or she is unaware of the problems in it (where an EU citizen is having an affair, for instance).  Also, for the reasons already set out, this possibility should logically only apply where the Directive refers to the initiation of divorce proceedings. But that would mean that bringing proceedings first could not benefit those with custody of children, access rights to children or domestic violence issues.

Finally, it should be noted that the Advocate-General’s interpretation of the EU Charter analysis is simply wrong: Article 7 (which corresponds to Article 8 of the ECHR) does not apply only as regards family life, but also private life. This includes all the relationships which a foreigner has built up in a State, even if he or she no longer has family members there: see the Slivenko judgment, for instance.

So what is the correct approach to this issue? Admittedly, the Directive is very unclear about the relationship between divorce and departure. But the rules on divorce would lose much of their effet utile if they ceased to apply simply because the EU citizen left the country – particularly given that the whole point of EU law in this field is to promote such free movement in the first place. The best way to reconcile the two sets of rules is to rule Article 13(2) can confer a right of residence where a divorce application has been lodged within a reasonable period after the EU citizen has left the country. That’s undeniably vague. But the Directive is full of vague rules, such as the need to assess whether there is a reasonable prospect of finding employment, or to apply a case-by-case assessment of those convicted or crimes or applying for social assistance. And, as pointed out above, the Advocate-General’s alternative of relying upon the amorphous concept of ‘departure’ isn’t any more precise anyway.

Picture credit:
Barnard & Peers: chapter 13


  1. Good analysis. Another problem with the decision is its failure to take account of domestic divorce laws that may actually make it impossible for the non-EU spouse to "him/herself institute the divorce proceedings in good time in the host Member State". Such as the laws in Ireland - ironically, the Member State where these proceedings originated - which require four years' separation before divorce proceedings can be instituted at all.

  2. Rules and regulations always vary according to the country. Not every country holds the same rule on this irrespective of the religion. There should be harmony and leniency in any rules for this marriage and divorce. However, the citizens of the country should know the rules in detail. And if a foreigner is marrying, that person should be aware about your country's rule. And if divorce happens, it should be solved amicably.

  3. A great article!

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