Marriage Italian or European style?

Italy opts for polygamous unions. But Europe's not too keen.

Luca and Manolo are gay and in a relationship. Luca is Italian, Manolo is Spanish and they want to get married. But where? In Italy it isn’t possible but in Spain it is. So they fly to Madrid where the registry office must certify whether Luca is not already married in Italy. As far as the registry office in Luca’s hometown is concerned, he is single, so Manolo is free to marry him.

The newlyweds return to Italy and set out to register their marriage with the registry office. The Italian office, however, cannot register a marriage between two people of the same sex; officially, Luca is single – in Italy. At this point, Luca meets John, a British man, whom he decides to marry in England, without bothering to divorce Manolo.

Luca and John fly to London, where Her Majesty’s registry office must also ascertain that Luca is not married. And since he is not in the eyes of the Italian registry office, Luca can marry a second time. Finally, Luca decides to return to Italy where, although still married to Manolo and John, he proposes to Anna. No problem: Anna is a woman and Luca’s mayor can unite them in matrimony. In the end they all lived happily ever after – and all married to Luca. The moral of this tale? That polygamy in Europe is bureaucratically possible. 

European parliamentarian Daniele Viotti (of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) created this imaginary ‘stress test’ for Italian institutions in ‘Polygame’, a humorous online video. Yet behind the comedy lie some very serious issues, with which Italian legislators have been struggling since 1988. The central question is the legal recognition of cohabiting unwed couples, both heterosexual and gay. In Italy, this issue concerns approximately two million people, to whom the state does not guarantee full recognition of the rights and obligations of a couple.

On a number of occasions the Italian Constitutional Court has adjudged this discrimination to be in violation of Article 2 of the Constitution, and the issue has even reached the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in favour of three homosexual couples who had been denied any form of legal recognition. In fact, in the absence of civil unions, cohabiting heterosexual couples can always choose to marry; for two people of the same sex, however, the Italian system does not even allow an equivalent to marriage. So, in Italy, Luca and Manolo are doubly discriminated against: they cannot marry and they cannot be recognised as a cohabiting couple.

The situation is different in the majority of the 28 EU nations: 18, in fact, recognise civil unions for heterosexuals and homosexuals. Of these, 11 member states allow marriage between two people of the same sex (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Holland, Portugal, Great Britain, Spain and Sweden). Italy, which offers no form of legal recognition to such couples, joins the ranks of Bulgaria, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

The European Parliament criticised this absence of civil rights protection in July (as it had in 2013 and 2014), in its annual report on fundamental rights within the the EU, requesting that the member states lagging behind “further contribute to reflection on therecognition of marriage or civil unions between people of the same sex as a political and social issue and a matter of civil and human rights”.

The report is a guideline document and therefore not legally binding, as Daniele Viotti points out: “The European Parliament does not have legislative power over civil rights and can only apply political pressure until these fundamental rights are respected”.

Nevertheless, the parliament in Strasbourg has not confined itself to criticizing the non-compliant states and has requested the European Commission to propose regulatory legislation for the full and reciprocal recognition between EU countries of all laws pertaining to civil status on a European-wide level. Such harmonisation would not only counter the discrimination affecting LGBT persons, it would also safeguard one of the most important founding principles of the EU: the free circulation of citizens.

For example, why should a married Belgian homosexual couple, if they choose to move to Poland to seek work, not be able to count on the same rights and protection offered in their home country? The ‘technical’ obstacle is clear and as happened in the past – for the free movement of goods – advances in European integration will probably be made via judicial rulings rather than through the genuine political will of national governments.

Meanwhile, a positive message arrived from the very Catholic Republic of Ireland, which approved same-sex marriage this May, following a referendum that saw 62.1% in favour of the legislation. This majority was not a given and exceeded all expectations.

The European Court of Human Rights, explaining the ruling against the Italian government, pointed out the large majority of Italians in favour of civil unions for same-sex couples (67% according to a poll by the Piepoli Institute). More divisive, however, is same-sex marriage, which was accepted by a slim majority of 53%, compared with 43% against (polling by Demos). Such figures seem to demonstrate how “society is more advanced than a large part of the political class”, says Viotti, who admits that on such a delicate issue “we will never be able to agree unanimously but we should have the courage of our convictions, which are already deep-rooted in society”.

The current situation also brings to mind events of more than 40 years ago when, ironically enough, civil and political struggles in Italy were fought in order to win the opposite right: to divorce.

Following the exhaustive parade of acronyms that has emerged during recent governments (including PACS, DICO and DIDORE), Minister of Constitutional Reforms Maria Elena Boschi has promised that the proposed legislation for civil unions, presented by the Democratic Party Senator Monica Cirinnà, will be approved by the end of the year.

Though she will first have to navigate a path fraught with amendments: 4,000 at current count. For Italy this could be the final call from Europe that, as Viotti points out, “does not only ask us to balance the budget but also to balance human rights”.

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