The European Court of Justice, which sits in Luxembourg, is sometimes described as the quiet man of the European institutions. But when it speaks - as in yesterday's ruling clearing the way for Spanish fishermen to sue Britain for up to pounds 30m - it can shake the member states to their foundations and offer an unpalatable reminder of the supremacy of EU law.
Comprised of 15 judges, one from each member state, and nine advocates general, the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is to ensure that EU law is both interpreted and implemented in line with the EU treaties. It is the only body with the power to give an opinion on how the treaties or other EU legislative acts should be interpreted, when requested by a national court.
Litigation which ends up in the Luxembourg chamber almost always begins in the national courts. Local judges deal with the initial proceedings but may decide there are issues of European law to be clarified or elaborated on: they will then refer cases to the ECJ. As in yesterday's ruling, it is the national court which has the final say, based of course on the interpretation handed down by Luxembourg.
In Britain, the mere mention of European rulings or courts can be enough to trigger sceptics' rage. That is partly because people often fail to make the distinction between the ECJ which is the European Union's highest legal tribunal, and the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, which operates under the aegis of the much older 38 nation Council of Europe.
The Strasbourg court interprets and oversees domestic implementation only of the European Convention on Human Rights. The reaction in Britain was furious when that court last year condemned Britain for the SAS killings of three IRA members in Gibraltar. Even members of the Government accused Europe of interfering in the UK's sovereign right to fight terrorism and warned that the ruling would be ignored.
To some extent, the Luxembourg court although entirely unrelated, gets tarred with the same brush. High-profile cases may have given the impression that Britain takes the rap more often than most in the EU court, but the reality is that the UK is regarded as one of the best observers of the rules and their implementation.
Britain is widely expected to push for at least some watering down of the ECJ's powers when the EU treaties come up for review in the Intergovernmental Conference to be launched in Turin later this month.
Luxembourg lawyers warn, however, that it might not be in Britain's interest to seek reforms that could weaken the court and leave the door open to exploitation by countries less diligent about observing the rules.Reuse content