For the past 20 years, family reunification has been one of the main reasons for immigration into the EU. It is an entry channel enabling those who already reside legally in a Member State (referred to as sponsors) to be joined by their family members. Family reunification helps to create socio-cultural stability, facilitating the integration of third-country nationals residing in EU Member States, thus promoting economic and social cohesion – a fundamental EU objective.
The Directive on the right to family reunification establishes common rules for exercising the right to family reunification in 25 EU Member States (excluding the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark). It determines the conditions under which family reunification is granted, establishes procedural guarantees and provides rights for the family members concerned.
The Directive applies equally to family relationships established before and after the sponsor arrived in the Member State. Sponsors can bring their spouse, minor children and the children of their spouse to the country in which they are residing. Member States may choose to authorise reunification with an unmarried partner, adult dependent children, or dependent parents and grandparents.
Once admitted in the Member State, family members receive a residence permit and obtain access to education, employment and vocational training on the same basis as the sponsor. After a maximum of five years of residence, family members may apply for an autonomous permit.
Member States may impose some conditions before allowing family reunification. They may require the sponsor to have adequate accommodation, sufficient resources and health insurance, and impose a waiting period of no more than two years. Family reunification can be refused for spouses who have not reached a required age – which can be 21 years at the highest. Polygamy is not recognised, which means that only one spouse at a time can benefit from the right to family reunification. Member States may ask third-country nationals to comply with integration measures before or after arrival. Finally, threat to public order, public security or public health can lead to rejecting the application. In order to prevent abuse, consequences in the event of fraud as well as marriage, partnership or adoption of convenience are also foreseen.
There are special, more favourable rules applicable if the sponsor is a refugee. Many of the above-mentioned conditions cannot be imposed if the family relationship existed already before the refugee arrived in the Member State, or they can only be applied in certain circumstances.
The Family Reunification Directive only applies to legally residing third-country nationals who ask to be reunited with third-country national family members. Other rules apply to family members of EU citizens (more information on family members of EU citizens who accompany or join them in another EU country than that of their nationality can be found here).
The European Court of Justice has underlined (for instance in case C-540/03) that Member States must apply the rules of the Directive in a manner consistent with the protection of fundamental rights, notably regarding the respect for family life and the principle of the best interests of the child.
The first report on the implementation of the Directive, issued in October 2008, has shown a relatively low impact, partly due to the high degree of discretion given to Member States when setting the admission conditions. In 2011-2012, a broad public consultation on family reunification took place to gather opinions from stakeholders and decide on the policy follow-up. As a result, in April 2014, the Commission adopted a Communication on guidance for application of Directive 2003/86/EC on the right to family reunification. It advises Member States in their implementation of the Directive in order to achieve a more consistent policy and practice across the EU.