Leading article: Legislation with a human face

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The Independent Online

Plans by the European Commission to introduce a law on cross-border divorces have been announced by the justice commissioner, Franco Frattini. The idea is not to impose common regulations on the European Union, nor yet to bring the very different national divorce provisions into line. It is accepted that this would be impossible, even if in the long term it might be desirable.

The purpose is rather to bring order to the present confused situation and give couples with links to more than one country a measure of certainty about the legal options open to them. At present, the poorly informed are at a disadvantage, while the more canny (or wealthier) can pick and choose the jurisidiction that would benefit them the most. The result is confusion, unfairness and uncertainty.

The proposed new law reflects the reality that, while there was insufficient support in the European Union to permit passage of a single constitution, the European Union has been growing together in very many other ways. They include cross-border travel, trade, working and, naturally, marriage between citizens of different EU countries. According to the European Commission, 350,000 "international" couples are married in the EU every year, while almost 170,000 international couples sue for divorce.

With divorce much simpler and quicker in some countries - mostly the Protestant or secular ones - than in others, divorcing couples can face a legislative minefield. They may find that the validity of divorce arrangements agreed in one country is queried in another, even if the divorce itself is recognised. EU countries already have an agreement that child custody orders issued by a court in one country must be recognised in another - a piece of legislation that came into force last year. But there is nothing that regulates access to divorce itself.

The new law would allow a "mixed" couple living in a third EU country to choose in which of the three jurisdictions their case should be heard. If they cannot agree, it would be the country where they live or have the strongest ties. The objection to this is that a partner's nationality could make divorce more difficult, or easier, than it is for the nationals of the country where the couple resides. This may be untidy; it should not be reason for this eminently sensible rationalisation to be rejected.

The European Commission is the institution that embodies for many critics what they see as the remoteness and unaccountability of the European Union. Efforts such as this, designed to make things easier for real people living real lives, are the sort of thing that can narrow the gap between "them" and "us". The EU should be doing more of it.