The court, which arbitrates on matters affecting the EU, ruled that positive discrimination by use of quotas is, in effect, sex discrimination against men. But the ruling is by no means the end of the quotas argument: women's groups in the European Parliament blamed outdated and badly phrased legislation for the decision and will today demand that Brussels issues a new directive that would unambiguously enforce the use of quotas throughout each member-state.
Nel van Dijk, the Dutch chairwoman of the European Parliament's women's- rights committee, said it was a nonsense for the court to say quotas discriminate against men. "Women have been sexually discriminated against for years, and it still happens. Positive action like this is the only way to reverse the situation," she said. Britain, the only country that argued for a ban on quotas, welcomed the ruling, which it viewed as a welcome display of "moderation" by the court.
But if the case simply brings new pressure on the Commission to draw up tighter legislation, Britain will be forced into a big fight. Since the quotas case began in December, Sweden and Finland have joined the EU and both have powerful women's lobbies.
Yesterday's ruling centred on a case involving Eckhard Kalanke, who complained he was unfairly discriminated against when rejected for promotion to the job of section manager in Bremen's parks department. He had a diploma in horticulture and landscape gardening and had been a horticultural employee since 1973. In the final stage of recruitment there was one other candidate, Heike Glibmann, who held a diploma in landscape gardening and had been a horticultural employee with the department since 1975.
Under Bremen's law on equal treatment in the public service, the department had to give the job to a woman. Where women applicants had the same qualifications as males and were under-represented in that job, government agencies had to give preference to females. The German law said women were under-represented if they did not make up at least half the staff in the relevant pay and job level, which was the case in the Bremen parks department.
The German state legislature drew up the law believing it was in line with a 1976 EU directive. But the Court of Justice ruled yesterday that the directive did not allow a Bremen-style quota system. The EU law, which has not been tested on these grounds before, was designed to promote equal opportunities, said the court, and to outlaw sex discrimination. The court accepted that the EU law allows "special measures" to be taken to erase "existing inequalities".
However, giving a narrow interpretation of those "special measures", the court made clear they did not involve quotas: "A national rule which automatically gives women of equal qualification priority over men involves discrimination on the grounds of sex."