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EU: Court Compels Changes In German Law

  • Roland Eggleston

A decision by the European Court of Justice that Germany must allow women greater access to military jobs has become a lesson for all current and potential members of the European Union. The issues points up the authority of the European Court to force EU countries to change their laws -- or even their constitutions -- on matters which used to be considered a matter for national governments.

Munich, 19 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The case that has proclaimed a tenet of the German Constitution unlawful began in 1996, when a young electrician applied to join the German army as a weapons technician. Tanja Kreil wanted to work on repairing the electronics of damaged army tanks.

The German Defense Ministry rejected her application. The grounds: Article 12-A of the German Constitution specifically excludes women from all weapons-carrying branches of the military. Unlike in many European militaries, in Germany no women serve as helicopter pilots, on naval vessels, or even in repair shops. Women can serve only in the medical corps -- as doctors, nurses, orderlies -- or in the music corps. As a result, only 1.3 percent of military personnel in Germany are women.

For Tanja Kreil, such restrictions were "like living in the Middle Ages," as she told a TV interviewer. She took her case to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, and argued that the German constitution was in violation of guidelines issued by the European Union in 1976 on the equal rights of the sexes at the workplace.

The European Court ruled in her favor last week (Jan. 11), saying that the ban on women carrying arms in the German military amounts to unlawful sexual discrimination.

The court's ruling has created a major headache for the German parliament. It could also cause headaches in other countries that are members of the European Union -- or want to be.

The German parliament has two options in deciding how to comply with the court ruling. It can try to find a "political solution" to the problem, passing a law that would open the way for women to enter most branches of the army except frontline combat. Or it can alter the constitution, a move that would in effect concede the European Court's power to overturn articles of national constitutions.

Many German political experts feel that changing the constitution would be opening a Pandora's box of troubles that would go far beyond the question of women's role in the German military.

According to German political analyst Hanna Bruch, every country in the European Union has a separate system of laws, many of which are enshrined in the constitution. Different laws and customs, she says, are often tied very much to a nation's individual history. In Bruch's words: "The idea that a court sitting in Luxembourg and made up mostly of foreigners should be able to override them is not popular."

The controversy revives the question of what a united Europe should look like. Should there be a central authority setting standards for all Europe, or should the individual nation states retain their own laws and customs?

Leading figures in Germany's conservative political parties have said the ruling infringes national rights. And opinion polls indicate that most Germans dislike the idea that a foreign court can force changes in the national constitution.

But Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping says the government will find a way to meet the European Court's demand that women recruits be given access to all branches of the German army. He has pointed out that Germany is the odd man out in the NATO alliance on this issue. Apart from Germany, only Italy does not allow women to carry weapons.

In some European countries, such as Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, women make up more than 7 percent of the military. In Norway, a woman (Solveig Krey) has commanded a submarine since 1995. And last year a woman (Eileen Collins) commanded a mission of the U.S. space shuttle.

Most commentators believe that women volunteers will eventually be able to join all branches of the German army. But change comes slowly in Germany, and few expect much to be done for several months. In the meantime, Tanja Kreil is still waiting.