Residence Rights for Carers of Union Citizen Children before the Court of Justice of the European Union: Some Reflections on the Pending Case of Chavez-Vilchez and Others
by Dr. Fulvia Staiano
Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Law, UCC Cork
In the currently pending case of Chavez-Vilchez and Others  , the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) was presented with two questions on the limits and scope of the principles established in its landmark Zambrano  judgment. These question, in particular, aimed to ascertain the scope of the principle established in Zambrano (and subsequently clarified in Dereci  ), whereby a third-country national parent of a child who is a citizen of a Member State enjoys a right of residence on its territory only when it can be said that the child would be forced to leave the Union in case of expulsion of the parent.
The Chavez-Vilchez case concerns a group of third-country national mothers who are the primary carers of their Dutch citizen children. The involved women opposed the Dutch authorities’ refusal to grant them with residence rights, motivated by the view that in case of their expulsion, the Dutch fathers of their children could still provide them with the necessary care. They submitted that they have sole parental authority and custody over their children, while the respective fathers are unwilling or unable to take care of them. In this light, the referring court has asked the CJEU to assess two main issues, both related to the interpretation of Art. 20 TFEU. First, it seeks to determine whether a Member State must grant the right to reside on its territory to a third-country national parent who carries out the primary care of his or her minor child, when the latter is a citizen of that Member State. Second, it asks whether for this purpose it is relevant that the legal, financial and/or emotional burdens do not weigh entirely on the primary carer, and whether it must be proved that the other parent is unable to assume responsibility for the care of the child.
These questions offer the CJEU with an opportunity to provide important insights into its understanding of care, particularly in relation to the quality and intensity of the carers’ involvement in their children’s upbringing for the purpose of qualifying them as indispensable. As is known, the CJEU has consistently granted residence rights to third-country national parents of Union citizen children on the grounds of the care provided by the former to the latter. In a first group of cases, this recognition was linked to the possibility for Union citizen family members to exercise their freedom of movement within the territory of the Union . Starting from the Zambrano judgment, residence rights for carers were also detached from the exercise of free movement and linked to the enjoyment of the substance of the rights attached to EU citizenship.
With the sole exception of its Carpenter judgment, in this case law the CJEU has so far consistently used the expression “primary carer” in respect to third-country national women involved. It was precisely this role of primary carer that prompted the conclusion that such care was essential for their children’s enjoyment of the rights either connected to their own Union citizenship or stemming from their father’s Union citizenship. The CJEU has not so far clarified the meaning of the notion of primary carer . However, this expression has arguably been used to refer to the essential and indispensable character of the care provided by a parent, and to the consequent dependence of Union citizen children from said parent.
On the other hand, in more recent judgments concerning third-country national fathers, i.e. in Zambrano and Dereci, the expression “primary carer” cannot be found. In the case of Zambrano, the dependence of the involved children from their father’s right to reside in Belgium was not assessed in terms of care at all, but rather inferred from the fact that both Mr. and Mrs. Zambrano – being irregularly resident third-country nationals – would be forced to leave the Union territory in case of denial of residence rights. In Dereci, the CJEU also overlooked the degree of involvement of Mr. Dereci in his children’s care, since his wife’s Austrian citizenship – and related right to reside in Austria – meant that their children would not be forced to leave the Union territory in case of his expulsion.
In this light, parental care does not appear to play a crucial role in the test carried out by the CJEU concerning the possibility for Union citizen children to fully enjoy the substance of the rights recognised by virtue of their status. The citizenship of both of their parents, in particular, can play an overriding role in this assessment.
Precisely for this reason, the outcome of the Chavez-Vilchez case will deserve specific attention. The presence of Union citizen fathers in the present case may indeed not be considered as a decisive factor to determine that the involved children would still be able to enjoy the substance of rights related to their Union citizenship in case of expulsion of their mothers. The lack of involvement of such fathers in their children’s care and upbringing, and their unwillingness or inability to ensure such an involvement in the future, will necessarily play a role in the CJEU’s assessment. This case, therefore, has the potential to foster key judicial clarifications on the meaning of primary care, on the degree and type of involvement necessary to consider parental care as indispensable and irreplaceable, as well as on the type and degree of fatherly involvement in childcare that may be reasonably expected and required in this context. A finding of the CJEU in the sense of recognising third-country national parents with residence rights on the grounds of the primary character of the care provided to their children would constitute a crucial development, bringing reproductive work to the fore and opening new perspectives for those devoted to it.
 C-133/15, Chavez-Vilchez and Others v. Raad van bestuur van de Sociale verzekeringsbank (Svb) and Others, lodged on 18 march 2015 [pending]. For an account of the factual grounds of the case, see Anouk Biesteker, Lukasz Dziedzic, Lorena Navia-Rodriguez, Gareth T. Davies and Janneke De Lange, Expert Opinion on Issues arising from the Pending Case of Chavez-Vilchez and Others (C-133/15), 30 June 2015, summary in English available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2641773 [last accessed on 28 October 2015].
 C-34/09, Gerardo Ruiz Zambrano v. Office National de l’Emploi, judgment of 8 March 2011.
 C-256/11, Murat Dereci and Others v. Bundesministerium für Inneres, judgment of15 November 2011.