Ladies and gentlemen,
It was with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation to deliver the closing address of this sixteenth European Registrars Conference.
The civil registry faces numerous challenges in the 21st century. The main challenge on national level is to lead the civil registry, as well as the Belgian judicial system, into the 21st century. This implies a modernization and computerization, while also taking into account the challenges on a social level such as the increasing number of (legal) cohabitations, reconstituted families, gender and name registrations, etc.
However, it is also important not to lose sight of the close synergy with the international level. The challenges are closely interwoven. Mobility has increased dramatically within Belgium, but also within Europe. Persons can move freely within the European Union. Millions of European citizens live and work in another member state than the one of which they have the nationality. The number of international relationships – marriages or (registered) partnerships – is growing.
Nowadays, we speak of a full "European citizenship" alongside the Belgian citizenship. In this framework, the Court of Justice rendered the following judgment pursuant to the laws governing names (judgment Garcia Avello, § 24 and following):
“The situations falling within the scope ratione materiae of Community law include those involving the exercise of the fundamental freedoms guarenteed by the Treaty, in particular those involving the freedom to move and reside within the territory of the Member States, as conferred by Article 18 EC (…).
Although, as Community law stands at present, the rules governing a person’s surname are matters coming within the competence of the Member States, the latter must none the less, when exercising that competence, comply with Community law (…).
Citizenship of the Union, established by Article 17 EC, is not, however, intended to extent the scope ratione materiae of the Treaty also to internal situations which have no link with Community law (…).
Such a link with Community law does, however, exist in regard to persons such as that of the Children of Mr Garcia Avello, who are nationals of one Member State lawfully resident in the territory of another Member State.”
The European citizenship is a binding element within Europe and an essential guarantee for a single economic area. Everywhere within Europe, the European citizen has to be able to benefit from an effective right to a private and family life. This was also highlighted by the previous speaker, who also referred to the developments in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights concerning surrogacy.
The aim of the civil registry in the 21st century must be to provide a universal service to the citizens, regardless of their location within Belgium or Europe. Therefore, all administrative obstacles have to be removed and deficient legal relationships have to be avoided.
For the citizens, this means concretely: no movements to the home country to request copies or extracts, no additional administrative formalities for recognition, no translation or legalization costs and no discrepancies in the civil registry such as the naming within Europe. For the government, this means: a lower administrative burden, a simplification through the full harmonization of the rules of the international private law or the substantive law, a reduced workload through more efficient cooperation, such as a fast and reliable exchange of data, etc.
The benefits cannot be emphasized enough.
In this light, a Belgian study concerning the "Modernization and computerization of the civil registry in Belgium", executed in 2012-2013, shows that the establishment of a central civil registry to achieve the aforementioned goal reduces the costs for the society by 31,415,650 euro per year. This amount consists of 12,637,925 euro for the civil registry services, 1,772,924 euro for the judicial registries, 11,403,103 euro for the citizens and 5,601,698 euro for the other target groups such as doctors, maternity departments and undertakers. The impact on the environment is enormous. According to the study, almost 852 trees could be saved. If this exercise is executed on the European level, we could speak of a multitude of efficiency gains, both for the citizens as for the government.
As the title of the conference clearly emphasizes, the final aim of this modernization is: "one civil registry throughout Europe".
Belgium wants to take the lead in this process, without undermining the national cultural and social values of the member states however. Mutual respect and trust are, after all, essential in this process. Therefore, Belgium always adopts a constructive attitude towards each cooperation and harmonization initiative, while maintaining room for diversity.
This process also has to take into account any problems that Europe currently faces, such as identity fraud and abuse of the family law to acquire residence permits or a European nationality (forumshopping). This reaffirms the need for a wider harmonization and a better cooperation if we want to maintain the free movement of persons in the Europe of the 21st century.
How far along are we in this exercise?
Op Belgisch niveau werd in een eerste beweging een aantal wetgevende vereenvoudigingen m.b.t. de burgerlijke stand doorgevoerd. Het betreft de opheffing van formaliteiten die nog dateerden uit 1804 en in het licht van de huidige omstandigheden achterhaald waren. Zo is de aanwezigheid van getuigen niet meer verplicht, werd de verplichting om alle bladzijden te paraferen opgeheven, kan een speciale schriftelijke machtiging verleend worden aan één of meer beambten van het gemeentebestuur inzake het opstellen van akten van de burgerlijke stand, wordt de geboorte voortaan vastgesteld aan de hand van een verklaring van een geneesheer of vroedvrouw, enz.
Daarnaast werd in het kader van de verwerking van de geboortekennisgeving een toepassing ontwikkeld met het oog op een optimalisering van de gegevensuitwisseling tussen alle actoren die zijn betrokken bij de verwerking van de geboortekennisgeving, het zogenaamde eBirth-project. Voortaan is het mogelijk dat zorgverleners die assisteren bij bevallingen, zowel binnen kraamklinieken als thuis of in geboortehuizen, de geboorte aangeven enerzijds door de identificatie van de moeder en het kind voor echt te verklaren en anderzijds door een reeks medische inlichtingen met betrekking tot de geboorte in te vullen op een formulier dat moet worden overgemaakt aan de diensten van de Burgerlijke Stand in de geboorteplaats. Deze gegevens worden online ingevoerd. Het is belangrijk dat de uitrol wordt voortgezet zodat in de toekomst alle geboortekennisgevingen elektronisch worden uitgewisseld.
De wet van 25 april 2014 verleende aan de Koning de bevoegdheid om modellen van akten vast te stellen en, voor zover nodig, vermeldingen aan de akten toe te voegen. Ter uitvoering van deze bepaling werden door mijn administratie inmiddels nieuwe uniforme modellen van akten van de burgerlijke stand in documentaire vorm opgesteld die als basis zullen genomen worden bij de digitalisering ervan.
Zopas werd een Koninklijk Besluit tot herinrichting van de Vaste Commissie voor de Burgerlijke Stand ondertekend. Deze commissie, die o.a. bestaat uit vertegenwoordigers van de verenigingen inzake burgerlijke stand, kan ambtshalve of op mijn vraag een gemotiveerd advies uitbrengen over elke kwestie die verband houdt met burgerlijke stand en staat van de persoon.
Na alle voorgaande stappen is het moment aangebroken om het centraal register voor de akten van de burgerlijke stand in zijn digitale vorm tot stand te brengen. Bij een goed gestructureerd informatiseringsproject worden eerst de werkprocessen geoptimaliseerd: het overbodige wordt geschrapt, werkprocessen en documenten worden gestandaardiseerd en internationaal afgestemd. Dat hebben we voorbereid. Daarna wordt gekeken wat een digitale manier van werken kan en moet opbrengen voor alle actoren zoals de burgers, de ambtenaren van de burgerlijke stand, de uiteindelijke bestemmelingen van de afschriften van de akten van de burgerlijke stand want burgers vragen die niet op voor zichzelf maar om ze voor te leggen aan overheden, bedrijven en andere instanties.
In de digitale wereld zullen de uiteindelijke bestemmelingen, mits toelating van de betrokkenen en/of de ambtenaar van de burgerlijke stand, rechtstreeks toegang hebben tot het digitaal register. De only once wet die stelt dat de overheid een informatie of een document niet mag vragen aan de burger als ze deze informatie reeds kent zal ten volle van toepassing zijn op het tot stand te brengen digitaal register. Het betekent dat we dit centraal register zullen moeten connecteren aan vele andere elektronische systemen via de zogenaamde servicebus. Ook uiteraard, met onze buitenlandse partners.
Bovendien, dat spreekt bijna voor zich, zal dit alles moeten geschieden met respect voor alle regels inzake bescherming van de persoonlijke levenssfeer. Dat zal betekenen dat het digitaal register goed beveiligd zal moeten zijn, dat er goede toegangscontrole zal moeten zijn voor wie zogenaamde schrijf- en/of leesrechten heeft. Het “loggen” van alle verrichtingen is daarbij een belangrijke waarborg omdat het zal toelaten na te gaan wie wat gedaan heeft. Dit heeft een preventief afschrikkingseffect maar zal ook toelaten a posteriori elk misbruik aan te pakken.
Al de voornoemde voorbereidende stappen nodig om het centraal register te informatiseren zijn gezet. Daaraan hebben vele instanties van wie er veel vertegenwoordigers hier aanwezig zijn, in de afgelopen jaren aan meegewerkt. Ik wens iedereen daarvoor te bedanken. Nu moeten we de grote, laatste maar belangrijke 2 stappen zetten: een digitaal centraal register technisch opzetten en de wettelijke basis vastleggen voor dit register inclusief, waar dit nog is gebeurd, de procedures op digitale manier in de wet formuleren. Ook dit doen we met respect voor onze lange traditie inzake burgerlijke stand:
- De gemeentelijke ambtenaren van de burgerlijke stand zijn en blijven de verantwoordelijke voor het opmaken van de akten, zelfs als ze digitaal zijn en via een digitaal proces tot stand worden gebracht. Deze rol is in ons land zelfs grondwettelijk verankerd. Het feit dat ze op één plaats in digitale vorm om efficiëntieredenen worden opgeslagen, verandert dit niet.
- Het zijn publieke akten opgemaakt door de overheid en dus met een bijzondere bewijswaarde. De digitale vorm doet geen afbreuk aan het feit dat het om akten gaat. De continentale juridische traditie om de burgerlijke staat vast te leggen in een documentair systeem, weze het dat de akten nu een digitale drager zullen kennen, blijft dus overeind. Het register zal de authentieke bron zijn voor de akten en afschriften van de burgerlijke stand.
Ik hoop ten laatste onmiddellijk na de zomer de uitvoering van deze laatste 2 stappen, wettelijke basis en technologisch project aan de regering voor te leggen. Daarna kunnen we in overleg met de stuurgroep en alle stakeholders de het project in 2017 en 2018 afwerken en uitrollen. Ik voer daarmee het regeerakkoord uit maar, en dat is belangrijk, realiseren we wat vele voorbereid hebben en nu, terecht, willen afronden.
In 2006, a "comparative study on the legislation of the Member States of the European Union on civil status, practical difficulties encountered in this area by citizens wishing to exercise their rights in the context of a European area of justice in civil matters and the options available for resolving these problems and facilitating citizens’ lives” was executed on European level (also known as the "Freyhold-report"). This study clearly reflects the state of affairs of the harmonization and stresses the enormous differences both in the substantive law as in the way in which the civil registry is organized.
Belgium favours a strong European cooperation and harmonization, but also realizes that this is a gradual process which requires great effort both nationally and internationally and which also has its limitations.
A first step is taken on the level of the recognition of extracts and copies of certificates across Europe.
Like all other European member states, Belgium is a contracting party to the Convention of 5 October 1961 Abolishing the Requirement of Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents in the framework of The Hague Conference on Private International Law that provides for a simple procedure for the international use of official documents such as birth certificates.
On 25 May 1987, the (former) member states concluded the Brussels Convention Abolishing the Legalisation of Documents in the Member States of the European Communities. However, this Convention has not entered into force as not all member states have ratified it. Only eight member states, including Belgium, provisionally use the Convention in their mutual relations.
The same exercise was made in the International Commission on Civil Status (ICCS), of which Belgium has been a member since 1950. So far, this organization has drawn up no fewer than 34 conventions regarding the civil registry and the international exchange of information. One example is the “Convention on the issue of multilingual extracts from civil status records” (ICCS No. 16), which – with the support of the European Union – was updated by the “Convention on the issue of multilingual and coded extracts from civil-status records and multilingual and coded civil-status certificates” (ICCS No. 34). This morning, the council of ministers has given Belgium the green light to ratify this Convention.
In the light of the "Convention on the use of the International Commission on Civil Status Platform for the international communication of civil-status data by electronic means" (No. 33) and with the support of the European Union, the ICCS has even developed a platform which allows a direct exchange of civil status records between the governments of member states. The citizens no longer have to contact the services of another member state, legalization or translation is no longer required, the authenticity of the information is ensured and the request of the citizen is treated quickly and efficiently, without any additional administrative burden. On 18 December 2012, this Convention was signed by Belgium and four other States: France, Luxembourg, Poland and Switzerland.
The creation of this platform is an important (second) step forward. Belgium does everything within its means to ensure the success of this project. However, we should not start applauding yet. Even though the platform is still in the development phase, the first signals are positive. In 2015, tests were performed in two Belgian municipalities: Sint-Gillis and Leuven. Some technical issues, for example, when using the electronic identity card to log in, have been remedied in the meanwhile. Currently, tests are being performed with France and Luxembourg. In July of this year, the general secretariat of the ICCS will draw up a balance, which will enable other members to give their opinion about their engagement in this platform during the next bureau meeting in September 2016. If it appears that the evaluation is positive or that only surmountable technical issues appear, Belgium would like to continue the project in any case, if necessary bilaterally.
At the same time, we closely monitor the developments at the level of the European Union. The 2009 Stockholm Programme, called “An open and secure Europe serving and protecting the citizens”, stressed the importance of creating a genuine European citizenship by promoting the rights of the citizens, in particular the right to free movement. The related Action Programme claims that a well-functioning European judicial area has to be put at the service of the citizens and the businesses while supporting the economic activity of the internal market. In this context, the adoption of a legislative proposal implies an abolition of the formalities with regard to the legalization of public documents between the member states. In response, the European Commission published a green paper in December 2010, called “Less bureaucracy for citizens: promoting free movement of public documents and recognition of the effects of civil status records”.
In the meanwhile, the European Commission has prepared an apostille regulation with a twofold purpose. First of all, the exemption from legalization, simplification of other formalities and requests for information by the abolition of certain administrative formalities such as legalization, the apostille, certified copies and sworn translations, by ensuring a better cooperation between the member states. The abolition would mainly concern civil registry matters. Secondly, a simplification by the implementation of multilingual standard forms for these matters. This would simplify and improve the full execution of the European rights of free movement.
Belgium has fully subscribed to the objective of this regulation and has constructively supported the realization thereof. This did not prevent us from making reservations on a number of points. At first, we thought it better to start with a limited scope which could be extended in case of a positive evaluation. Secondly, the mandatory acceptance of free translations from an entirely alien language is a bridge too far. Finally, we have expressed doubts as to the use of an a posteriori control system via IMI (Internal Market Information System) in this context. The question arises whether an a posteriori control is not more prone to fraud. However, Belgium has positive experiences with IMI and therefore did not oppose.
Essential for Belgium was that this regulation does not compromise the realizations and the future of the International Commission on Civil Status. In this way, the use of the multilingual extracts and the platform remains guaranteed.
On 8 June, the European Parliament will discuss the regulation in second reading.
However, it would have been better if the European Union immediately had moved to an electronic platform where the states could directly exchange the civil status data. Therefore, I would like to urge the European Union to cooperate with the ICCS in a following phase after a positive evaluation and to roll out the platform across Europe. This implies a significant efficiency gain, not only for the citizens who no longer have to travel within Europe, but also for the environment through the more efficient use of paper, as well as for the government that can work faster, more reliably and more efficiently. It seems obvious to me that the European Union gives priority to the platform that has already been developed and which they subsidise themselves rather than use money of the European tax payer to create yet another new system. We want to avoid the coexistence of many systems.
A third step forward is realized by the full harmonization of the rules of international private law by creating a European Code of Private International Law which would solve any cross-border complexities.
So far, many regulations in several areas have already been adopted, such as:
- the European succession regulation;
- the regulation (Brussels II bis) on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in matrimonial matters and in matters of parental responsibility;
- the regulation (Rome III) implementing enhanced cooperation in the area of the law applicable to divorce and legal separation.
Other regulations are on their way in the framework of the registered partnerships and the marriage settlements.
The jurisprudence of the Court of Justice such as in the case-Garcia-Avello and Grunkin and Paul also forces the member states to harmonize the naming legislation in the light of the European citizenship. The previous speaker has already demonstrated this outstandingly.
Belgium always adopts a constructive attitude. Belgium is bound by all regulations. Pursuant to my fifth law regarding various provisions in the matter of justice (potpourri), all provisions are explicitly integrated in the national law and the scope thereof is extended to all international situations as much as possible. In this way, I intend to realize a full harmonization.
Moreover, new rules of international private law with regard to naming are also recorded in the light of the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice. A preliminary draft has already been prepared and will be presented to the federal parliament in my next law regarding various provisions. In the light of the developments at European level, the new rules of international private law essentially contain two novelties: a right of option and an additional connection. Pursuant to the Belgian international private law, European citizens will be able to choose between the law of the nationality or one of the nationalities and the law of the place of residence.
Are there limits to the harmonization of the international private law? Please allow me to first of all stress the importance of a European international private law to allow a real free movement of persons and to enjoy an effective European citizenship. Harmonization is based on mutual trust and shared values. The question rises whether a member state is prepared to accept the law of another county in their own country.
Belgium, for example, recognizes co-motherhood. Two women who are married and have a child, both receive the parentage of the child at the time of birth if the child has the Belgian nationality. Will the application of the Belgian law also be accepted in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary?
Similar problems have already prompted member states not to go along with the story of a strengthened cooperation. We are currently seeing a two-speed Europe in this regard. However, it is important to strive for a maximum level of European harmonization. The fact that certain member states refused to take part in this story in the past, does not exclude them from being persuaded to accept certain regulations in the future.
The last step is – of course – a unified European family law (unification). Is this attainable and desirable? Currently, there are great differences between the member states in the organization of the family law. One member state recognizes same-sex marriages, while the other member state has organized a registered partnership. Some member states provide for stricter rules to get a judicial gender change, while other member states accept a simple declaration. These differences are rooted in the culture and tradition of a member state. Even within Belgium, it is particularly difficult to find a consensus in this regard. For more than a decade, there have been ongoing negotiations about the possibility to register a stillborn child after a pregnancy of less than 180 days.
Under the impulse of the European Court of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights offers a minimum level of protection for all rights and freedoms, which is regularly elevated in the light of the changed circumstances and the European consensus which revolves around it. In this respect, there is already some level of unification within Europe.
This does not exclude the Court from also respecting the cultural differences and traditions and the sensitive ethical discussions, which results in room for appreciation for the member states.
It is my conviction that a European family law is currently hard to achieve. I also wonder whether this is really necessary and desirable? There can only be trust when there is also respect for each other's identity as member states and thus, room for diversity, while trust is essential to achieve cooperation and harmonization. This cannot be judicially enforced. It is important to let this trust grow gradually.
Let us first work on that.
I hope that this has sufficiently convinced you of the belief and the commitment that Belgium has made to lead the civil registry into the 21st century, at both national and European level. Belgium remains a loyal partner at European level and will constructively support any initiative in this regard.
Belgium also wants to take the lead and does everything in its power to guarantee the utmost success of the project for which your association stands as Flemish and European association of civil registrars, both at national level through the creation of a central digital register as on international level through the creation of a civil registry platform and a maximum harmonization of the rules of international private law.