In the case of Koilova and Babulkova v. Bulgaria (40209/20, 5.9.2023), the European Court of Human rights found a violation of Article 8 of the Convention (right to respect for private and family life) on account of the failure by the Bulgarian authorities to set up a legal framework allowing same-sex couples to be granted adequate recognition and protection of their relationship.
The applicants, two women who married in the United Kingdom and live in Sofia, were denied the right to have their marriage entered in the Bulgarian civil status register, on the ground that under the Bulgarian legal system a marriage could only be between a man and a woman.
This case provides a good opportunity to compare with each other the Strasbourg and Luxembourg approaches to same-sex couples. While the former is based on the right to respect for private and family life, the latter relies on the right of EU citizens to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member Sates.
In essence, what Article 8 of the Convention requires is, as confirmed by Koilova and Babulkova, that Member States provide a “legal framework allowing same‑sex couples to be granted adequate recognition and protection of their relationship”, there being some margin of appreciation in determining the exact nature of the legal regime to be put in place. It does not necessarily have to take the form of a marriage (Fedotova and Others v. Russia, §§ 178 and 188).
Coman and Others was about a same-sex couple which married in Belgium, where they lived for a couple of years, and wanted to settle back in Romania, the country of origin of Mr Coman. His husband, however, was denied a resident permit on the ground that the Romanian legal order did not allow same-sex marriages. The CJEU ruled in essence that this refusal was in breach of Article 21(1) TFEU which enshrines the right for every citizen of the Union to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member states. It stated, inter alia:
Article 21(1) TFEU is to be interpreted as meaning that, in circumstances such as those of the main proceedings, a third-country national of the same sex as a Union citizen whose marriage to that citizen was concluded in a Member State in accordance with the law of that State has the right to reside in the territory of the Member State of which the Union citizen is a national for more than three months.
Stolichna obshtina, rayon ‘Pancharevo’, for its part, was about a minor child who is a Union citizen and whose birth certificate, issued by the Spanish authorities, designated as that child’s parents two persons of the same sex. The Bulgarian authorities refused to issue identity papers to the child on the basis of the Spanish birth certificate, arguing that this would contravene the Bulgarian public order which only allowed a man and a woman to be registered as the parents of a child. The CJEU ruled inter alia that the Member State of which that child is a national, i.e. Bulgaria, was obliged to recognise the document from the host Member State, i.e. Spain, which permits that child to exercise, with each of those two persons, his or her right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States.
When comparing those two approaches, the following observations would appear relevant:
- First of all, Koilova and Babulkova is another example of the ECtHR correcting the effects of mistakes made at domestic level in assessing Union law requirements. In this case, the Bulgarian administrative courts had indeed stated that their position was in line with Union law, as well as the Convention (§ 6). One may wonder why the Bulgarian courts did not make a reference for a preliminary ruling by the CJEU.
- The CJEU case-law is based on the right of EU citizens to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States (Art. 21(1) TFEU and 45(1) of the EU-Charter). Thus, it would appear not to apply to situations where the legal status the recognition of which is sought in a EU Member State has been granted outside the EU.
- Furthermore, the recognition in a Member State of the status granted in another Member State is imposed for the effective enjoyment of the right to move and reside freely within the EU. By its very nature, it presupposes that the EU citizen concerned made effective use of that right, notably by living in another Member State than the one which granted the status the recognition of which is being sought. As such, a person’s status is a matter which indeed falls within the exclusive competence of the Member States (Coman and Others, § 37).
- These are notable differences with the Strasbourg case-law based on Article 8 of the Convention. The latter indeed applies to the entire jurisdiction of the Contracting States and to all persons subject to their jurisdiction, regardless of their biography or nationality.
- However, as stated above, Article 8 does not require the benefit of a specific status for same-sex couples, but only an adequate recognition and protection of their relationship, i.e. an effective protection of their right to private and family life (Koilova and Babulkova, § 46). By contrast, EU law requires the recognition of the specific status which was granted by the host Member State. This may entail an obligation to recognise a same-sex marriage, at least for the purpose of the exercise of the right to move and reside freely, as in Coman and Others.
- Finally, one should note the references made by each European Court to the case-law of the other, which testifies of the cross-fertilisation taking place between the two in this area.