Protecting the right to a nationality for children of same-sex couples in the EU – A key issue before the CJEU in V.M.A. v Stolichna Obsthina (C-490/20)

Patrícia Cabral – Legal Policy Officer, European Network on Statelessness
/ 18 mins read

The enjoyment of LGBTIQ* rights varies across Europe. As a result, children of same-sex couples can face problems with recognition of civil status, birth registration and access to birth certificates, leaving some children in these families either stateless or at risk of statelessness, and impacting on their access to EU citizenship. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will now have an opportunity to address this issue in a case concerning a child born to same-sex parents in Spain, for which a hearing is due to take place next week.

Court of Justice of the European Union
Photo: Transparency International EU Office - Flickr Creative Commons*

The enjoyment of LGBTIQ* rights varies across Europe, including the recognition of same-sex partnerships or marriages and the recognition of legal parentage between children and those who raise them as parents – regardless of biology, gender or sexual orientation. As a result, rainbow families in Europe (families where a child has at least one parent who identifies themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex or queer) can face problems with recognition of civil status, birth registration and access to birth certificates, leaving some children in these families either stateless or at risk of statelessness.

Such cases have occurred across several countries in Europe and reflect a wider concerning trend within the EU, where LGBTIQ*-related discriminatory laws and practices by Member States impact on the child’s right to a nationality and their access to EU citizenship. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will now have an opportunity to address this issue in a case concerning a child born to same-sex parents in Spain, for which a hearing is due to take place next week.

The case before the CJEU

The case before the CJEU, V.M.A. v Stolichna Obsthina, Rayon ‘Pancharevo’ (C-490/20), concerns a child born in Spain, to a British mother and a Bulgarian mother, who had entered into a civil marriage in the UK before the birth of the child. Spain issued a birth certificate, which recorded both mothers as the child’s parents, but which does not specify whether one of the women is the biological mother. The Bulgarian mother subsequently applied for the issuance of a birth certificate for the child in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian authorities refused to issue a birth certificate, on the grounds that no evidence was provided about the child’s parentage with respect to her biological mother, and that the registration of a birth certificate with two female parents was contrary to public policy, as same-sex marriages are not permitted in Bulgaria.

One of the questions asked by the domestic court to the CJEU is whether the Bulgarian authorities can refuse to issue a birth certificate on the grounds that the applicant refuses to provide information on who is the biological mother. The CJEU is also asked to consider how to strike a balance between the national and constitutional identity of the Member States (protected by Article 4(2) TEU) on the one hand, and the right to respect for private and family life and the best interests of the child on the other (Articles 7 and 24(2) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights).

The domestic court noted that the refusal to issue a birth certificate by Bulgaria constitutes an obstacle to the issuance of identity documents and may impede the exercise of the child’s rights as an EU citizen, asking the CJEU whether this affects the interpretation of EU law. Even though it recognises that without a birth certificate the child would be unable to acquire identity documents and exercise EU citizenship rights, the domestic court does not explicitly address the impact that this may have on the child’s right to a nationality and the risk of statelessness in its request for a preliminary ruling.

In the request for a preliminary ruling, the domestic court assumes that the child would be entitled to British nationality, considering the impact that Brexit would have in the exercise of her rights as an EU citizen. However, new evidence has subsequently been submitted to the court that the UK has since refused nationality to the child (based on special provisions that do not allow a parent who acquired British nationality by descent to pass on their nationality to a child born outside the UK). As neither of the mothers holds Spanish nationality, although she was born in Spain, the child did not acquire Spanish nationality at birth. She would need to rely on a safeguard in law which ensures that children born in Spain who would otherwise be stateless can acquire Spanish nationality. However, to apply this safeguard it must be demonstrated that the child is unable to acquire any other nationality. The Bulgarian authorities’ denial of access to identity documents, which are essential for the child to evidence her Bulgarian nationality and effectively enjoy her right to Bulgarian nationality, contradict the fact that according to Bulgarian law, the child is entitled to Bulgarian nationality (see below for further elaboration on this point).

This poses a particular and paradoxical challenge in this case, in terms of the ability of the child to provide evidence that she is effectively prevented from acquiring another nationality in order for her to be able to take advantage of the Spanish safeguard. Furthermore, had the child been born in a country without a safeguard that protects children born stateless on the territory, the situation would remain unresolved and the child would be stateless due to discriminatory birth registration practices by the Bulgarian authorities. Given that the UK and Spain have both confirmed the child is neither a British nor a Spanish national, the child is currently stateless, or at least at risk of statelessness. While it is unfortunate that the domestic court did not address the impact on the child’s right to a nationality, the CJEU is free to reformulate the questions referred to it and provide all the elements of interpretation of EU law relevant to the case, including those related to access to EU citizenship and statelessness. This is a fundamental issue that the CJEU must resolve in this case.

In its request for a preliminary ruling, the court asks whether Member States have broad discretion as regards the rules for establishing parentage, however the issue is not the establishment of parentage but rather the recognition in Bulgaria, of the legal parentage established in Spain. In line with caselaw from the CJEU and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the margin of discretion that Members States have in the recognition of parentage, particularly when this impacts on the child’s best interests and identity, is narrower than for the establishment of parentage. As further explained in this piece, doubts remain as to whether the domestic authorities are refusing to recognise the legal parentage established between the child and her mothers as evidenced by the Spanish birth certificate, or whether they recognise the parentage but refuse to issue a birth certificate. Whichever position the authorities are taking, it has a severe impact on the child’s rights and the refusal to issue a birth certificate results in denying her Bulgarian nationality and thus access to EU citizenship.

Discriminatory birth registration practices negatively impact the fulfilment of children’s rights

Most, but not all of us, have had our births registered. Birth registration involves the official recording of a birth within the civil registry, which records both the fact of the birth and its characteristics. It often results in a birth certificate issued by the civil registrar that provides proof that the child has had their birth registered and is essential evidence of a child's family ties as well as their place of birth. These are key aspects of legal identity and can be critical to establishing the child’s nationality, as nationality is usually acquired either through the parents (jus sanguinis), the place of birth (jus soli), or a combination of the two.

Lack of birth registration is not the same as statelessness, yet it heightens the risk of leaving children without a nationality. Given the key information birth registration provides about individuals and their links to a State, either through the parents or place of birth, not having a birth registered or a birth certificate evidencing registration can contribute to difficulties establishing these links and consequently expose them to the risk of statelessness. Children in this situation face severe obstacles in exercising the rights to which they are entitled under international law such as the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), including access to education, healthcare and social security. In the case of children born to EU citizens, lack of birth registration and consequent impacts on acquiring a nationality will also impede on their ability to exercise their rights as EU citizens, including free movement rights.

Ultimately, it is never in the child’s best interests to be left stateless, even for a short period of time. As stressed by UNHCR in its Guidelines on Statelessness No. 4, “it follows from Articles 3 and 7 of the CRC that a child must not be left stateless for an extended period of time: a child must acquire a nationality at birth or as soon as possible after birth”.

In its concluding observations to the Bulgarian government in 2018 (CCPR/C/BGR/CO/4), the UN Human Rights Committee noted with concern that same-sex couples married abroad and their children are denied access to civil registration, and made recommendations towards eliminating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Such discriminatory birth registration practices against same-sex couples often have a serious impact on the child’s right to a nationality and may render a child stateless, leading to other violations of the child’s rights. This is the situation in the current case, where the Bulgarian authorities have refused to issue a Bulgarian birth certificate for the child on the basis of birth, gender and sexual orientation.

Somewhat paradoxically, in the current case the domestic court has seemingly recognised the legal parentage between the child and the Bulgarian mother, as evidenced by the Spanish birth certificate, through its conclusion that the child would anyway be a Bulgarian national by virtue of having a Bulgarian mother (although see below why this assertion is questionable). Given the legal parentage has been recognised by the Bulgarian authorities in this way, the refusal to issue a birth certificate on the basis of establishing parentage constitutes direct discrimination based on birth, sexual orientation and gender. According to Article 60(2) of the Bulgarian Family Code, the mother of the child is the woman who gave birth to the child, therefore the woman who has not given birth is not considered a mother. However, in a similar situation of an opposite sex couple this issue would not arise, as both parents would be included in the birth certificate without requiring proof of parentage. Such discrimination is not justifiable and requesting information on the biological parentage in this case therefore constitutes a violation of Article 21(1) EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFR).

This discrimination based on the sexual orientation of the parents and its impact on the child’s acquisition of nationality is further at odds with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by all EU Member States, as all children have the right to be registered immediately after birth and the right to acquire a nationality without discrimination of any kind and irrespective of the child’s or their parent’s status (Articles 2 and 7 CRC). The case also raises other important questions beyond the scope of this commentary, but which have been discussed by other experts.

Denial of a child’s nationality in practice, despite entitlement in the law, leads to statelessness

According to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, a stateless person is somebody who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law. This has been authoritatively interpreted by UNHCR as requiring “a mixed question of fact and law”, meaning that statelessness is not just about the letter of the law, but about how the competent authorities apply the law in a specific case. UNHCR also asserts that “under the operation of its law” is not synonymous with “by operation of law”, a term which signifies that acquisition of nationality is automatic in nature, as opposed to other non-automatic mechanisms to acquire nationality (such as through naturalisation).

According to the Bulgarian court, the question of the child’s right to a nationality does not arise in this case as a result of the authorities’ refusal to issue a Bulgarian birth certificate for the child. The court states that the child is still a “Bulgarian national by operation of law”. This suggests that the child would be automatically considered a national under Bulgarian law, but it must be noted that nationality cannot be established by court (Article 4 of the Law on Bulgarian Nationality) and regard must be given to how the law is applied in practice. According to UNHCR’s guidance, asserting whether a person is considered a national under a State’s law and practice requires evaluating evidence issued by the competent authorities. When nationality is acquired automatically, i.e. “by operation of law”, birth registration is usually the document that provides evidence of acquisition of nationality. By refusing to issue a birth certificate, which provides evidence of the legal parentage between the child and her Bulgarian mother, the authorities are also denying the child access to identity documents which are essential for her to evidence her Bulgarian nationality and to effectively enjoy her right to a nationality and all rights derived from it. By extension, the child is also prevented from enjoying her EU citizenship, which the CJEU has reiterated to be “the fundamental status of nationals of the Member States”.

As noted by UNHCR, “where the competent authorities treat an individual as a non-national even though he or she would appear to meet the criteria for automatic acquisition of nationality” – as in the case at hand, where the authorities are preventing access to identity documents – “it is their position rather than the letter of the law that is determinative in concluding that a State does not consider such an individual as a national”.

Denial of EU citizenship and related rights

Refusing to issue a birth certificate should therefore be interpreted as a refusal to recognise Bulgarian nationality, rendering the child stateless. This would also automatically impact on the child’s access to EU citizenship and on the enjoyment of the rights derived from it. As the CJEU held in the Zambrano case, Article 20 TFEU “precludes national measures which have the effect of depriving citizens of the Union of the genuine enjoyment of the substance of the rights conferred by virtue of their status as citizens of the Union”. The refusal to issue a birth certificate means she would be unable to evidence the acquisition of Bulgarian nationality and has no entitlement to any other nationality of an EU Member State, which would result in a denial to acquire EU citizenship and entirely deprive the child from enjoying her rights as an EU citizen.

Furthermore, the CJEU has held that the concept of public policy as justification for a derogation from a fundamental freedom must be interpreted strictly. In the Coman ruling, it noted that the obligation to recognise same-sex marriages, for the purpose of granting a derived right of residence to a third-country national, does not undermine the national identity of Member States protected by Article 4(2) TEU or pose a threat to public policy. While Member States are free to decide whether to allow marriage between persons of the same sex, they are precluded from imposing national measures which may obstruct the exercise of free movement rights and such measures must comply with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Although in Coman the CJEU addressed the granting of a derived right of residence to a third-country national who was married to an EU citizen, the principles outlined in the judgment could be applied to the present case in V.M.A. v Stolichna Obsthina.

Upholding EU commitments to equality for rainbow families

The EU has made important strides towards recognising and upholding the rights of children of rainbow families and their parents in recent years, not least with the recent introduction of a five-year LGBTIQ Equality Strategy, which includes protecting the rights of rainbow families as one of four key pillars for action between 2020-2025. As President von der Leyen asserted in her State of the Union address, “if one is parent in one country, one is parent in every country”. As part of the strategy, the European Commission commits to bringing forward a legislative initiative on the mutual recognition of parenthood and to explore possible measures to support the mutual recognition of same-sex partnership between Member States. This builds on work in recent years by the Commission under its List of Actions to advance LGBTIQ equality to address free movement and cross-border issues, through its dialogue with Member States to remove obstacles concerning the recognition of birth certificates of children born to same-sex couples in another Member State.

Furthermore, in order to improve legal certainty for EU citizens exercising their free movement rights, and to ensure a more effective and uniform application of the free movement legislation across the EU, the European Commission committed in the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy (as also described in the EU Citizenship Report 2020) to review the 2009 guidelines on free movement in 2022 and to ensure that the updated guidelines reflect the diversity of families, and to help all families, including rainbow families, to exercise their right to free movement.

Through these initiatives, the EU demonstrates the responsibility of both the EU and its Member States to remove barriers to birth registration and to ensure the recognition of birth certificates of children born to rainbow families, the legal parentage of the children and any consequences on the child’s right to a nationality.

In 2021, the EU will publish a 2021-24 strategy on the rights of the child, providing a comprehensive framework for EU action to promote and protect children’s rights, and including recommendations for action by other EU institutions, EU Member States and stakeholders. This presents a further opportunity for the EU to outline action to protect the rights of children of rainbow families, including the right to a nationality.

The role of the courts in respecting the best interests of the child and upholding the child’s right to a nationality

Nationality law usually falls within a Member State’s competency. However, as the CJEU emphasised in Rottman, when exercising their powers in the sphere of acquisition and loss of nationality, Member States must have due regard to EU law, including upholding the EU’s values and the rights enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Under its Article 53, the level of protection granted by the provisions of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is at least equivalent to the protection granted by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and international law, including the CRC. It is therefore essential for the CJEU to draw from international jurisprudence on the right to respect for private and family life in the consideration of this case, as well as to consider the right to a nationality, the principle of non-discrimination and the best interests of the child in line with international human rights law.

Case law from the ECtHR affirms that the recognition of parentage and acquisition of nationality fall within the ambit of the right to respect for private and family life (e.g. Mennesson and Genovese), as protected by Article 8 ECHR and Article 7 CFR, and provides guidance to its interpretation. Particularly in Mennesson, the ECtHR has stressed that respect for private life requires that everyone should be able to establish details of their identity as individual human beings, which includes the legal parent-child relationship, emphasising that children have a right to legal identity.

The child’s right to a nationality is further protected under Article 15 UDHR, Article 24(2) ICCPR, and Articles 3 and 7 of the CRC. The UN Human Rights Committee has recently found that failure to identify statelessness and assess a child’s nationality status led to a violation of the right to a nationality (Zhao v Netherlands). Furthermore, in their General Comment No 14, the Committee on the Rights of the Child recognises that the best interests of the child might conflict with other interests, including the public interest, and notes that authorities must bear in mind that the right of the child to have their best interests taken as a primary consideration means that the child's best interests are not just one of several considerations, nor should they be considered on the same level as all other considerations. Rather, they take priority in all circumstances, “especially when an action has an undeniable impact on the children concerned” (CRC General Comment No 14 para 40General comment No. 14(2013)), as is the situation in this case.

The courts play a key role in interpreting national legislation and thus aligning domestic practice with the regional and international human rights framework. While domestic courts must not lose sight of their international obligations, the regional courts have a further responsibility to ensure that the diversity of national jurisdictions does not compromise respect for fundamental rights or the best interests of the child. Cases similar to the one presently before the CJEU have been reported across Europe, with children born to same-sex couples facing discrimination in recognition of civil status documents and in access to birth registration and identity documents, particularly in Poland, Bulgaria and Ireland. The nationality laws of all Member States must be applied in a non-discriminatory manner and with respect for fundamental rights, especially when they have a direct impact on the enjoyment of EU citizenship. Currently, children are being born stateless or at risk of statelessness in the EU and denied EU citizenship, solely because of a prejudice towards their parents’ sexual orientation. The CJEU therefore has an essential role to play in supporting progress towards a seamless implementation of international standards on statelessness and human rights law in all EU Member States, and towards a Europe where no child is born stateless.


Further reference resources:

*Photo: Transparency International EU Office (Flickr Creative Commons)

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