For the first time ever, nine of the EU's 27 members are preparing to implement a cooperation mechanism that some observers fear could turn the bloc into a collection of ad-hoc agreements made by small groups of states.
Who gets the sofa could be decided by which laws are applied to international divorces
The move by the nine countries, which could receive the support of Germany and several other nations, according to the AFP news agency, could set a precedent for small groups of EU members to cooperate without the entire bloc's support.
France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Luxembourg and Romania are ready to invoke the bloc's "enhanced cooperation procedure" at a justice ministers' meeting on Friday, July 25, to strike a deal on international divorce law.
Sweden vetoed a proposal that would have allowed couples of different EU nationalities to choose which country's laws to use when divorcing. EU family law requires unanimous support in order to be enacted.
Provided that the European Commission accepts the divorce initiative, it then has to be approved by a qualified majority of the bloc's 27 member states.
Small factions lead the way
EU politicians are considering how to proceed after the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty
Enhanced cooperation is regarded as one of the ways the EU can stem off paralysis across the bloc, which may increasingly come into play if it fails to quickly overcome Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.
That treaty, which also requires unanimous ratification to go into effect, would have simplified voting procedures in addition to changing the EU's approach to foreign policy. The European Union's reliance on unanimous decision-making comes under frequent criticism for paralyzing the bloc.
Except for issues with military or defense implications, EU treaties allow for pioneer groups but the clause has never been used before.
"Enhanced cooperation is a very sensitive issue because it has never been implemented," a French diplomat said, according to Reuters news agency. "It allows several member states to go forward faster than others, and it is not necessarily the image we want to give of the EU."
Some 170,000 international marriages end in divorce in the European Union each year but there are no common rules dictating which country's laws to apply. Spouses sometimes rush to court in their country of origin to try to get the law on their side.
Marriage and divorce laws differ widely across the 27-nation EU, from the liberal Nordic nations to Catholic Poland and Ireland. Malta prohibits divorce.