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EU: Summit Moves Toward Legislation Harmonization

The EU summit in Tampere, Finland, this past weekend resulted in a few changes in EU law that will affect the daily lives of EU citizens. Our correspondent reports that, as a result of the summit, the EU member states will recognize one another's court decisions. That will affect everything from divorce and traffic law to criminal extradition.

Copenhagen, 18 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The citizens of western Europe have become used to hearing fine but incomprehensible pronouncements coming out of summit meetings. In many cases, decisions taken at such meetings have little immediate relevance to the lives of ordinary people.

The EU summit in Tampere over the weekend broke with that tradition. Even though the leaders of the 15 EU states did indulge in the type of dense jargon that is mockingly termed Eurospeak, they also produced some decisions that will directly affect the lives of EU citizens. The major concrete achievement of the summit was to move toward the harmonization of legislation among the different EU countries. The EU has achieved a great deal towards economic cooperation in areas of free trade, a common currency, and the dismantling of intra-EU taxes and tariffs. But so far it has failed to introduce political and legal unity. In Tampere, the EU leaders decided to gradually make all member states recognize the rulings of their respective courts.

The decision will have immediate consequences for both the civil justice and the criminal justice systems of the 15 countries.

One example of changes in civil justice proceedings is how divorce law will be handled. Take the hypothetical case of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer, married for five years with two children. Mr. Meyer is a German executive, and Mrs. Meyer, a Swede, is a housewife. Mr. Meyer's job has taken him to many European and non-European countries, and at the time the Meyers decide to get a divorce, they happen to be living in Spain. Because the children live with them, it turns out that Spain has jurisdiction over the divorce proceedings.

But very soon both Mr. and Mrs. Meyer discover that the kind of legal treatment they get in Spain is quite different from what they have been used to in their native Germany, and Sweden, respectively. Their expectations of the legal division of property, pension and insurances, and the parental and visiting rights in Spain are wildly divergent from the norms in both Germany and Sweden. Furthermore, neither Germany nor Sweden recognize a court decision taken in Spain, which means that such a divorce could take years to be validated in the Meyers' home countries.

The decision at Tampere does away with that problem. EU member states will be bound to recognize each other's legal proceedings. And they will be encouraged, over the course of several years, to smooth out the differences among their laws.

Differences among the EU countries in criminal law can be even more drastic. In a criminal example, "Johnny B." is an indicted felon who has been sentenced to several years in jail in Denmark for armed robbery and attempted murder. Johnny B. has, however, managed to escape from his preliminary arrest in Denmark, and has used his rights as an EU citizen to travel freely through the EU, making his way to Portugal. The Portuguese do not accept the sentence passed by a Danish court, and therefore they don't arrest Johnny B. Instead, Copenhagen has to make a formal extradition request through diplomatic channels -- again, a procedure that can take years.

At the Tampere summit, that loophole was scrapped. It was decided that the legal arrangements between the EU members states must be updated to reflect the realities of the economic union. Extradition as such will be done away with altogether between member states. It will be replaced by the tentatively called Eurowarrant, which, when issued by the authorities in one state, will be valid in all others.

In practice this will mean that if the police are after you in the Netherlands, they will be after you in Greece, too. And if your driver's license is revoked in France, you won't be allowed to drive in Italy.