Members of the European Parliament have called for action to ensure gay couples in marriages and civil partnerships are recognised across the continent.

While EU member states are required to simplify entry and residence for couples in recognised relationships and the directive does not mention gender, it does not require states to explicitly demand that countries must recognise gay couples in marriages or civil partnerships.

According to MEPs who took part in this Tuesday’s debate, this can leave gay couples who visit or live in other EU countries lacking protection in areas such as benefits, pensions, healthcare and parental rights over non-biological children.

Gay Labour MEP Michael Cashman said: “If I were to have an accident whilst on holiday in Italy, my partner would not even be given the basic right to decide whether, in such a case, I should be on a life support machine or not. It is these basic elements that are so private and personal of which we are deprived on the sole basis of prejudice.”

Liberal Democrat MEP for London, Sarah Ludford, who is a member of the European Parliament lesbian and gay rights intergroup, added: “When my constituents with civil partnerships travel or move abroad within the EU, they lose their rights and legal status, as others have mentioned: inheritance, tax, social benefits, even the right to be treated as a partner are lost.”

She added: “It is not about forcing member states to change their own marriage laws, but simply to recognise other countries’ marriage laws.”

Baroness Ludford claimed that the European Commission’s fundamental rights commissioner, vice-president Viviane Reding, confirmed that existing European law is being broken and called for her to take EU states to court.

During the debate, Ms Reding said: “If you live in a legally-recognised same-sex partnership, or marriage, in country A, you have the right – and this is a fundamental right – to take this status and that of your partner to country B. If not, it is a violation of EU law, so there is no discussion about this. . . The reality sur le terrain – in real terms – might be different, and we have to change this reality.”

She added that her role was to help governments understand changing mentalities but said: “If there is no understanding, then more harsh measures have to be applied.”