THIS week's ruling by the European Court of Justice that the European Commission (Brussels) has the power to harmonise criminal laws across the whole of the EU naturally produced a rash of headlines of the “Europe can now jail British citizens” variety in Britain. It should be said at once that not even experienced international lawyers are agreed on the precise meaning of the judgement; some think it breaks new ground while others believe it is only a minor extension of the Commission's existing legal powers. The European Court of Justice's judgement related narrowly to the punishment of offenders against the EU's environmental directives but the Commission quickly issued a statement saying that it regarded the result as “an important precedent for Community law in general”.

The ruling addresses the problem that although legally binding directives are issued by the Commission in Brussels on behalf of the EU as a whole, not all member states feel obliged to act on them. Many policies determined by the Council of member states and issued as directives by Brussels are observed unevenly among the EU's 25 members. This is an unsatisfactory situation and leads to the often heard defence of non-compliance that another country isn't bothering about it either. It also breeds resentment; many Spanish hunters and bird-catchers whose activities have been curtailed feel that their Italian counterparts continue to do as they please. The Court's ruling is presumably intended to provide a remedy for this kind of discrepancy.

There is, however, considerable opposition to any extension of Brussels' powers into the field of criminal law. The Court hearing began before last year's enlargement of the EU and 11 of the then 15 members were opposed to any change, Britain, Spain, France and Germany among them. It was therefore an ironic coincidence that the EU's president, Jose Manuel Barosso, should have chosen yesterday to announce the scrapping of 60 draft laws intended to impose EU-wide standards in various areas, as part of his deregulation campaign. He said some 70 of 200 draft laws had been identified as generally unnecessary and that where necessary, it would be best left for individual countries to take action.