Dafydd is a dual national from Belgium and Wales (UK). His partner Ana is Spanish. Their two children were born in Brussels but registering their births was not completely straightforward…
Fall in love with Belgians and even marry them. But don’t ever have children with them if you want to avoid administrative nightmares.
Wherever you come from you may have difficulties choosing a first name for your children, but having children with us Belgians complicates matters beyond belief. You may very well end up having beautiful little children with different surnames on different passports.
It may sound like something out of a James Bond film to those of you with just one passport. Still, a growing number of BCT members and expats have fallen for Belgians. The end result may be healthy little babies but Belgium’s administration insists on giving only the father’s surname to a child, if either the mother or father is a Belgian citizen. This practice, which dates from a sexist Napoleonic law, may lead to administrative nightmares.
“Even if you had ten children, you would have to ask for ten Royal Decrees to change their surnames,” our Spanish-Belgian friends were told by a Brussels commune official. This is Belgium at its quaintest. Our friends had to pay – and wait almost two years – for a Royal Decree to correct the surname of their first son in Belgium. That way, their child now has the same surname in Belgium as in Spain, where children receive two surnames; one given by their father and one by their mother.
After their second child was given the wrong surname in Belgium (i.e. just the father’s surname) our friends were much less happy with Belgium’s ‘quaint’ surname laws. Eighteen months after the birth, they are still waiting for another quaint Royal Decree. That also means that their second child has a different surname from the first one, although the parents are the same. The second child also has a different surname in Belgium than in Spain.
Having different surnames on different passports is fun – at the very beginning. But don’t be surprised if you are treated with suspicion when flying to the US or any other security-obsessed destination. More mundanely, a child who has completed schooling in Belgium under one surname, may have to prove he or she is one and the same person when going to university in another country and having a passport in another name. When older, the children will have to remember which surname they used when they bought a plane ticket, car or house. Parents, obviously, will have to do that for them until they grow up.
Belgium’s inflexible law causes problems not just for Belgian children with a Spanish or Portuguese other parent. Belgium refuses to recognise other forms of a surname when registering Belgian children with a parent of another EU nationality, for instance, Bulgarian, Czech, Greek, Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Slovak. Here the main part of the surname is the same but a female is given an ending such as –a -eva, -ou, -ova or -aitė. Still, it would not be beyond a Belgian official to dispute whether a little girl with the (incorrect) male surname Grybauskas in Belgium, for example, is the same girl as Grybauskaitė in Lithuania.
Examples abound and I only list EU countries as only they can complain about Belgium discriminating against their children under the EU’s right of free movement. So if you’re Icelandic, Macedonian or Ukrainian, you’ll probably just have to apply for a Royal Decree and hope for the best.
Our own story was even more complicated. At one point we were faced with the possibility of three different surnames for our children in Belgium, Spain and the UK. It had already taken us months to agree on our second son’s first name, to the extent of us putting a poll up on Facebook for friends to help us choose, but this was nothing in comparison with making sure the little boy had the same surname in Belgium as he would have in the UK and Spain.
Luckily our child was born in Schaarbeek. Rather unofficially and quietly, the officials at the commune recognised the absurdity of giving our second child a different surname from our first child as well as a different surname to that in the UK or Spain. Thankfully we hadn’t chosen hospitals in Uccle and Ixelles as in those communes, officials stick rigidly to Belgium’s absurd surname law despite the number of mixed EU-Belgian couples.
However, there may be a change on the way. After complaints, including those by a BCT member, the European Commission has decided to take Belgium to the European Court of Justice. Belgium, which lost a very similar case back in 2002, has little chance of winning.
The EU’s justice commissioner Viviane Reding has taken up the case. Last year Reding forced Sweden to change a similar law. The Netherlands, too, should change its law. Reding notes that as a consequence of Belgium’s surname law, all official documents like civil status and residence documents, attestations, certificates and diplomas that children obtain in Belgium in the course of their lives will be issued under a surname different from that given in the EU member state of their non-Belgian EU parent.
“These children will constantly need to dispel doubts and confusion about their identity and the authenticity of their official documents. This creates an unacceptable obstacle to exercising the right to free movement”, said EU justice commissioner Reding. “With this last step in the EU infringement process we take action to ensure that all EU citizens, notwithstanding the nationality of their parents, are able to fully enjoy their rights.”
By Dafydd ab Iago
This article was published in the March/April 2013 edition of the BCT’s Small Talk magazine.