Liberal family law in the making: Nordic and European harmonisation


This paper discusses the past and contemporary legal harmonisation exercises of family law in the Nordic countries and Europe. The critique is that the harmonised ‹European family law’ only entrenches the status quo and reiterates traditional family patterns, the male norm, heteronormativity, and a public/private divide represented in the neutral guise of a liberal rights discourse. Furthermore, the critics point out that the political economy of legal harmonisation is, to a large extent, ignored. In the Nordic countries, egalitarianism and broad political deliberation characterised much of the previous legal harmonisation, whereas rights discourse in its liberal sense is a novelty, more or less triggered by the European integration. This paper discusses the gendered implications of the emerging rights discourse in the Nordic countries and the linkages between family law, the labour market and social welfare. The paper argues that the harmonisation exercise cannot be regarded as one consisting only of legal norms and reasoning, but rather it should be discussed from the perspective of a political and epistemological challenge to the prevailing ‹truths’ about marriage, family and sexuality.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Agell A., (2001) Är en nordisk familjerÄtt och successionsrÄtt realitet eller illusion? En projektrapport – sÄrskilt om ÄktenskapsrÄtten. Lakimies 6–7:1002–1030

    Google Scholar 

  2. Agell A., (2003) Nordisk äktenskapsrätt. En jämförande studie av dansk, finsk, isländsk, norsk och svensk rätt med diskussion av reformbehov och harmoniseringsmöjligheter Köpenhamn: Nordiska Ministerrådet

    Google Scholar 

  3. Boele-Woelki, K. (ed.), Perspectives for the Unification and Harmonization of Family Law in Europe (Antwerp: Intersentia, 2003)

  4. Boele-Woelki, K. (ed.), Common Core and Better Law in European Family Law (Antwerp: Intersentia, 2005)

  5. Boele-Woelki K., et al., (2004) Principles of European Family Law Regarding Divorce and Maintenance Between Former Spouses Antwerp: Intersentia

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bradley, D., “A Family Law for Europe? Sovereignty, Political Economy and Legitimation”, in Perspectives for the Unification and Harmonization of Family Law in Europe, ed. K. Boele-Woelki (Antwerp: Intersentia, 2003), 65–104

  7. Burman, M. & Gunnarsson, Å. (ed.), Familjeföreställningar: om familjens betydelse inom juridik, ekonomi och forskning (Uppsala: Iustus Förlag, 2001)

  8. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”, 2 June 2003

  9. Council of the European Union, The Hague Programme: Strengthening Freedom, Security and Justice in the European Union, 1399/04, 27 November 2004

  10. Einarsdóttir, T. & Pétursdóttir, G.M., Culture, Custom and Caring: Men’s and␣Women’s Possibilities to Parental Leave (Akureyri: Centre for Gender Equality in Iceland, 2004) at Report.pdf (viewed 21 March 2007)

  11. European Commission, A Roadmap for Equality Between Men and Women 2006–10, Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, COM (2006) 92 final, 1 March.2006

  12. Fineman M.A., (1991) The Illusion of Equality: The Rhetoric and Reality of Divorce Reform Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

    Google Scholar 

  13. Fineman M.A., (1995) The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth Century Travesties Routledge: New York

    Google Scholar 

  14. Jänterä-Jareborg M., (2001) Mot en europeisk (internationell) familjerätt. Om EU-samarbetets utvidgning till familjerätten. Juridisk Tidskrift 1/13:48–75

    Google Scholar 

  15. Legrand P., (1997) Against a European Civil Code. Modern Law Review 60:44–63

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Lehr V., (2003) Relationship Rights for a Queer Society: Why Gay Activism Needs to Move Away from the Right to Marry. In: Macedo S., Young I. M. (ed.) Child, Family, and State. New York University Press, New York, 306–342

    Google Scholar 

  17. The Lisbon European Council, “The Lisbon Strategy – An Agenda of Economic and Social Renewal for Europe”, 7/00, 28 February 2000

  18. McGlynn C., (2000) A Family Law for the European Union?. In: Shaw J., (ed.) Social Law and Policy in an Evolving European Union. Hart Publishing, Oxford, 221–241

    Google Scholar 

  19. McGlynn C., (2003) Challenging the European Harmonisation of Family Law: Perspectives on ‹the Family. In: Boele-Woelki. K., (ed) Perspectives for the Unification and Harmonization of Family Law in Europe. Antwerp: Intersentia, 219–238

    Google Scholar 

  20. McGlynn C., (2006) Families and the European Union: Law, Politics and Pluralism Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

    Google Scholar 

  21. Melby K., Pylkkänen A., Rosenbeck B., Carlsson Wetterberg, C., (2006) Inte ett ord om kärlek. äktenskap och politik i Norden ca. Göteborg: Makadam. 1850–1930

    Google Scholar 

  22. Nousiainen, K., “The Law and Politics Mix in Finnish Equality Policies”, Paper presented at the conference on Equality and Diversity in Europe, Helsinki, January 2006, available at (viewed 21 March 2007)

  23. Plantenga J. & Remery, C., (2005) Reconciliation of Work and Private Life: A Comparative Review of Thirty European Countries. Brussels: European Commission Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities

    Google Scholar 

  24. Pylkkänen, A., “The Transformation of the Nordic Model – from Welfare Politics to Gendered Rights”, Canadian Journal of Women and the Law (forthcoming)

  25. S.O.U., Äktenskap för par med samma kön - vigselfrågor (2007)

  26. Stark B., (2005) International Family Law. An Introduction Aldershot: Ashgate

    Google Scholar 

  27. Weitzman L.J., (1985) The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America. New York: The Free Press

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I wish to thank the editors, the anonymous referees and the participants of the conference “The Baltic Sea Area at the Crossroads: Political, Legal, Economic, and Cultural Challenges” that was arranged in Umeå, Sweden, in March 2007, for their insightful comments. This paper was written as a part of my research project as the Research Fellow of the Academy of Finland.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anu Pylkkänen.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Pylkkänen, A. Liberal family law in the making: Nordic and European harmonisation. Fem Leg Stud 15, 289–306 (2007).

Download citation


  • family law
  • legal harmonisation
  • the European Union
  • the Nordic Model of Marriage
  • sexuality
  • gender division of labour