Denmark a destination for couples tied in red tape

Despite Denmark's tough immigration laws, the country is a beacon for foreign couples, with one of the most liberal marriage laws on the Continent.

On the steps of this city's majestic town hall, Oliver Samson and Sonia Phalnikar celebrated the one thing that would have been impossible just an hour's flight away in their hometown of Berlin: their marriage.

For more than a year, the couple had been navigating Germany's tangled bureaucracy in an effort to get married. But despite Mr. Samson's German citizenship, and the fact that Ms. Phalnikar, who is Indian, has been legally employed in Germany for the past five years, the costs and hurdles of a marriage in which one partner lacks German citizenship proved too daunting.

So they did what increasing numbers of multinational couples, Europe-based American serviceman, even EU citizens do – they went to Denmark.

The Scandinavian nation may have developed a reputation recently as being tough on immigrants within its borders, but in a policy twist that is so very European Union, Denmark has become a beacon for foreign couples, with one of the most liberal marriage laws on the Old Continent.

"It's not as easy as in Vegas," said a spokesperson for the Danish Ministry of Interior and Health. "But it is easier than other places in Europe."

While nations like France and Germany put up hurdles designed to weed out fake marriages, Denmark requires little more than proof of European residency, a birth certificate and a passport copy, plus 70 euros ($95) for a marriage license.

Since 1999, 509 Germans alone have married their foreign partners in Denmark, according to government statistics. Copenhagen city hall marries, on average, nine couples a day total, with the numbers going up on weekends, according to the city.

The Internet is filled with the websites of Danish wedding consultants. One of them is Natascha Rode, whose "Express Wedding" consultancy charges between 380 and 2,000 euros, depending on the time schedule, for everything from organizing the paperwork to providing witnesses, if needed. She's married American servicemen and women, eager to get hitched before shipping off to Iraq, as well as intra-EU couples.

"We even have German couples who get married here, because it's simpler and quicker," she says.

Germany's marriage clinch is a result of decades of immigration policies crafted with deterrence in mind. Wary of fake marriages organized to keep one partner in the country, or marrying foreigners on forged paperwork, the German government requires an enormous amount of proof.

"The process is created in the interests of the couple, in avoiding a marriage that can be challenged, or declared void," wrote German Interior Ministry spokesman Matthias Wolf in an e-mail.

Ms. Phalnikar had once worked as an au pair, or nanny, in Germany, and later returned with a work and residency permit issued by her current employer, the broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Their hopes that this would help their case were dashed quickly.

"The civil servant at the local office said 'Where are you from?' And when I said, "India' he said, 'Uh oh, that's not going to be easy,' " recalls Ms. Phalnikar.

The couple traveled to India, returning with the documents needed – including Ms. Phalnikar's birth certificate, confirmation that she had never been married, and permission from her parents. But it turned out there was no one in the EU qualified to translate the birth certificate into German.

German authorities then told the couple they would have to pay up to 2,000 euros for the cost of hiring a lawyer in India who could prove Ms. Phalnikar was who she said she was.

"And you can imagine that's when I threw a fit," she says. "I've worked here for five years, I pay into a pension and taxes. I mean, they know me, and I still can't get married? It's ridiculous."

Ms. Phalnikar thinks Germany is sending the wrong message to the immigrant populations its labor market will need to rely on in the future.

"If you hear the political debate in this country, they want people like me," she says. "So there's a disconnect between what they're saying and what is actually being done."

"I find it unbelievable that in our globalized world, they can't marry in Germany," said the groom's father, Wolfgang Samson. "I tell my friends and every one of them says, 'That just can't be!'"

But the wedding finally came on a sunny Friday in late May. The couple and around 25 friends and family members from as far away as Japan and London huddled into a medieval antechamber in Copenhagen City Hall. There, a slight Danish bureaucrat in a black robe performed a short ceremony in heavily accented English. Within 10 minutes, the vows were spoken, rings exchanged, and the party, all smiles, left. On their way out they passed another bridal party, patiently waiting their turn.

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