Can 'physically ill' David Cameron find a cure for his European law allergy?
In 1979, John Hirst killed his landlady with an axe. During 25 subsequent years in prison, he became Britain's most litigious prisoner, submitting up to nine written complaints a day – including one about the .
This grievance was to have a far-reaching effect. Hirst's eventual victory at the European court of human rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg – where he had appealed after losing his case in the high court – has seen the UK ordered to overturn the ban. David Cameron says the prospect of doing so makes him feel "".
The prime minister's scope for manoeuvre is limited, though. Although the ECtHR is not technically part of the European Union, its decisions are treated as such by the main European court, the . The close relationship between the two bodies was further enshrined by the Lisbon treaty, which incorporated ECtHR case law into EU law in 2009 . To defy the ECtHR's orders would have major repercussions – not just in Strasbourg, but also in Brussels.
Accordingly, in spite of Cameron's public expression of anger, the government is expected to do as it is told, with senior figures such as attorney general and justice secretary impressing the importance of the UK meeting its legal obligations.
This has left many concerned about the extent to which British national sovereignty is compromised by our European commitments. Last month, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society (Civitas) calling for "urgent reform of human rights legislation to keep European judges from deciding British law".
It is not an issue on which Europhiles like to dwell, with most viewing national sovereignty as an awkward sacrifice – ideally not mentioned too much – on the road to a single Europe. This attitude was borne out at this week's conference called Building a European Area for Justice, which was held in Brussels by the and the European Journalism Centre to publicise a host of policies being driven by Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship.
When the topic of sovereignty was broached, speakers tended to bristle. Asked about member state objections to the imposition of an EU-wide framework to counter discrimination against the Roma community – an area over which Reding recently clashed with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy – Sixto Molina of the Council of responded tetchily: "This is a simple question of whether you believe human rights to be universal or not. I hope everyone does."
Others, such as Laura Corrado, deputy head of the commission's data protection unit, stuck cautiously to the official EU line that sovereignty flare-ups could be minimised by "achieving consensus between member states and the EU at the policy-making stage".
The reality, however, is that much of Reding's forward-thinking, yet controversial, agenda is destined for a rough ride from member states keen to preserve their own decision-making powers. Alongside greater protection for Roma, she is promoting pan-EU divorce law rules and a campaign to increase the numbers of women on corporate boards.
The women on boards campaign, in particular, looks likely to stir up tension on these shores. Reding has suggested she will push for legislation to force publicly listed companies to increase the proportion of women in their boardrooms to 30% by 2015 and 40% by 2020 if they fail to respond to her calls to do so voluntarily.
"I will assess the situation and see whether there is significant progress in enhancing women's participation in decision-making," she said. "If this has not happened, I will be ready to present measures at EU level."
With just 12.5% of UK board positions currently held by women, and a strong prevailing sentiment against positive discrimination, a Brussels-imposed gender quota could cause a backlash similar to the one that has greeted prisoners' votes.
Of course, the EU, with its democratically elected parliament, has a remit to legislate in a way the ECtHR does not. But the fundamental problem facing any steps towards "building a European area of justice" is the same: many of us don't like being told what to do by Europe.
Certainly, it is easy to feel protective towards good old Blighty after spending a few days listening to aloof Eurocrats utter Eurotruisms inside a building dotted with conspicuously expensive modern art.
On the whole, though, co-operation beats the conflict that defined European relations in the centuries that preceded European union. And with the UK due to assume chairmanship of the Council of Europe (of which the ECtHR is a part) later this year, the government's stated aim of reform from within looks realistic.
Indeed, the 140,000-strong backlog of cases faced by the ECtHR – a situation widely regarded as unsustainable – means Cameron and co could find themselves with the leverage to enact substantial changes.
"Physically ill" Dave's conspicuous demonstration of alliance with the public mood on prisoners' votes may turn out to be a clever primer. Coming soon: "Better again" Dave, heroic tamer of those pesky, interfering Europeans.
is a freelance journalist who writes about law and education