Europe's tug of war between national, supranational

Britain lifted a ban on gays in military Jan. 12 due to a European

Gay groups and their supporters are applauding last week's decision by Britain to lift its ban on homosexuals in the armed forces.

The controversial move followed a ruling in September by the European Court of Human Rights.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government says it is "happy" to comply with the court's judgment, but the opposition Conservative Party hinted it might reconsider the issue if returned to power. Conservative member of Parliament Iain Duncan Smith told the House of Commons: "I believe that we should follow the advice of the armed forces, which has always been that lifting the ban would adversely affect operational effectiveness."

The implied threat chimed with what appears to be a developing sense in other European capitals, that supranational laws and regulations can be pushed too hard and too far.

Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon announced the end of the ban Jan. 12, adding that any personnel forced to leave the military for this reason could apply for reenlistment. But service sources say Mr. Hoon was acting against the advice of his military high command. Senior officers in the Royal Navy, in particular, are said to be hostile to the policy reversal.

Hoon also unveiled a new military code of conduct, warning that disciplinary action would be taken if a personal relationship or an individual's behavior damaged "efficiency or operational effectiveness." He said the code, which bans public displays of affection, would apply equally to all.

In a statement to the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament, Hoon made it clear that Britain had been forced into the decision by the European Court of Human Rights.

As members of the 39-nation Council of Europe, Britain and its continental neighbors are constitutionally bound to accept judgments handed down by the human-rights court, headquartered in Strasbourg, France. The 15 members of the European Union are also supposed to be bound by judgments of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg - in effect, the EU's supreme court.

But in the past few years, evidence has begun to pile up suggesting that individual governments increasingly would prefer to put their own national interests first, even if it means defying the collective will of European institutions.

Currently, France is refusing to recognize a decision by the European Commission (the EU's ruling body), that British beef is safe to eat again, in the wake of a scare over "mad cow" disease. Britain has complained to the European Court of Justice; France has filed a counterclaim. The case is expected to take more than a year to resolve.

Germany, too, is refusing to accept imports of British beef.

After World War II, France played a leading part in setting up what is now the EU, but it has a record of picking and choosing between decisions it likes and dislikes.

British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown says France's "stubborn" resistance on beef imports "reflects the strong influence of the French farm lobby" on Paris. The French government replies that it trusts its own scientists to decide what is and isn't safe for French citizens.

Britain, meanwhile, is not alone in having to be pushed into accepting that in the armed forces, national laws and habits can be supplanted by supranational rulings.

On Jan. 11, the European Court of Justice, enforcing EU equal-opportunity legislation, ruled that German women should be allowed to carry arms alongside men.

The case centered on Tanja Kreil, who in 1995 applied to join a tank regiment but was told she couldn't because she is female. Ms. Kreil argued that barring women from front-line ranks was "unacceptable sexual discrimination," and a panel of judges in Luxembourg agreed.

The Berlin government says it will study ways of allowing women to serve fully as soldiers without amending the Constitution.

While governments tend to wriggle and twist at having to comply with rulings in high-profile cases, there is ample evidence that in large parts of the social sphere, EU countries are ready to let Brussels decide right and wrong. The European Commission has power to impose rules on member states in a wide range of fields, including such matters as health, water purity, and food safety.

National governments must ratify the decisions, but British opposition Conservative leader William Hague says at least 60 percent of his country's social legislation these days emanates from Brussels.

Mr. Hague routinely makes it clear he dislikes this fact, and has made a political mantra of his view that he wants Britain to be "in Europe but not ruled by it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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