Belgium moves step closer to losing father-only surnames


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The Independent Online

A government bill outlining changes to how children are named has been approved by the Justice Commission in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives. 

The new rules will mean that parents will be able to choose whether to give their child the father’s surname, the mother’s surname, or both, in whichever order they prefer. If they cannot come to an agreement or do not state a preference, the child will receive both surnames by default, with the father’s name coming first.

Currently, all Belgian children are required to take their father’s name only. In addition to being condemned as discriminatory by groups such as the Nederlandstalige Vrouwenraad (Dutch-language Women’s Council), the rule lead to the EU Commission taking Belgium to court in September 2012.

The Court of Justice of the European Union held that the ‘serious inconveniences’ that the rule caused could hinder the right to free movement. These inconveniences are suffered by children with one Belgian parent and one parent from another EU member state, who are forced to go by their father’s name despite being registered under a different, often double, surname elsewhere. All their official documents, such as residence documents and qualifications obtained in Belgium, are issued under a name different to the name they go under in the EU Member State of their non-Belgian EU parent.

In response to the EU’s involvement, the Belgian minister of Justice, Annemie Turtelboom, prepared an initial proposal for change. This included parental free choice, but kept the traditional father-only naming system in place as the default procedure. In cases of disagreement between the parents, this would have meant that the father’s name would have been favoured. The amendment which has just been agreed moves further away from tradition, although pressure from conservative parties led to the default double name still leading with the father’s. Ms Turtelboom said about the new law: "It does away with discrimination between men and women, but shows respect for existing traditions."

The detailed articles of the law have now been agreed on, but procedure dictates that an official vote on the bill as a whole will be held separately sometime in the coming weeks. 

In the UK, parents have complete freedom when naming their children, although the patrilineal tradition means a large majority of babies are given the father’s last name.