EU closes child custody loophole

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The European Union is to draw up new rules to help stop custody battles over the children of mixed nationality marriages.

"A lot of children are suffering today because of this problem," said Anita Gradin, the EU Commissioner for legal affairs. "We must fill this legal gap."

EU justice ministers meeting yesterday in Luxembourg gave the go-ahead for new legislation. It will be added to a draft convention on jurisdiction and the execution of decisions in matrimonial matters.

When a couple from different EU states divorces or separates, there are no clear rules for deciding who gets custody of the children. This leads to frequent battles between different courts, with parents sometimes taking the situation into their own hands and seizing children.

However, Britain is sceptical because new rules would only cover children affected by marriage breakdown. Children whose parents were not married would be left in a legal grey area, officials said. The Netherlands, Greece and Portugal are pressing hard for the new measures and the French Justice Minister, Jacques Toubon, yesterday threw his weight behind the idea.

Britain put forward new proposals yesterday to co-ordinate the fight against soccer hooliganism. These would harmonise rules on ticket sales, draw up measures to exclude known or suspected hooligans, co-ordinate the use of police spotters and create a common format for police intelligence reports.

In practice, attempts to make EU co-operation on legal matters work are bedevilled by doctrinal differences. Because of continuing disputes about the role of the European Court of Justice the ministers were unable to agree a new convention to fight fraud in the European budget, or Europol, the new EU police agency. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, strongly opposes giving the EU's legal arm any role in matters which he thinks best kept under national control. Disputes like these - over the organisation of EU work rather than substantive matters - have kept ministers arguing for years over issues like immigration, racism, drugs and terrorism.