Farewell interview Prof. Bruno de Witte

Bruno de Witte and the ever-evolving field of EU law

Professor Bruno de Witte is saying goodbye to Maastricht University, but not to European Law. He will continue to deliver his razor-sharp legal analyses at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. Looking back on his extensive academic career, he remains fascinated by the fast-changing European legal landscape. His unique outlook on law – and life in general – is greatly appreciated and necessary. Or as he puts it: ‘I have had to change my way of teaching over the years. If I had wanted to work on a subject that never changes, I should have chosen Roman Law.’

According to Professor De Witte, the ever-changing character of European Law and Maastricht University are a great match. ‘I have always considered our university to be very open. We are not constricted by any ancient or outdated traditions. We welcome students and teachers from outside the Netherlands, resulting in an eclectic mix that benefits our research.’ During his two spells at the university, he saw the subject of European Law grow in importance. ‘I can safely say that Maastricht hosts the largest group of people in the world who study European Law!’

A fox rather than a hedgehog

Professor De Witte explains his method by referring to Isaiah Berlin’s ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. ‘If a hedgehog is someone who sticks to one topic and studies it endlessly, I’m definitely the opposite: a fox. I am interested in almost every subject within European law, so I researched a wide spectrum.’

This is what he is known for amongst colleagues as well. His colleagues Monica Claes and Ellen Vos call this his ‘great academic appetite. Professor De Witte would enter new fields and add to his academic menu, without ever relinquishing older ones.’ He confirms that this appetite is now as large as it ever was. ‘I happily capitalise on current affairs or interesting topics which colleagues run by me. Even though I have done much work on European Constitutional Law, it would be a shame to focus only on this one subject.’

His broad interest is reflected by the number of publications Professor De Witte worked on during his career: about 250 in total. ‘That may seem like a lot, but I never wrote a book. I am planning on writing one, but until now, I have mostly published shorter pieces on a broad range of subjects.’ In the process, Professor De Witte collaborated with many colleagues and people from European institutions. ‘It’s important to get in touch with people with different perspectives on research topics. An aspect that adds to the beauty of law, is its freedom to shape an argument. Law doesn’t restrict how you make those arguments, as long as they are convincing.’

Jodi Bel (via Letterdesk), photography: Jonathan Vos
Bruno de Witte

Changing for the better

As a professor of European Law, Professor De Witte saw the legal landscape change over time. Most of these changes were direct consequences of political developments. ‘When I started working at Maastricht University in 1989, the EU consisted of ten member states. Since then, lots have joined, and we are now up to 27. So any problem that arises quickly becomes a transnational issue, which is interesting!’ As time passed, another positive development shaped the university, according to Professor De Witte. ‘Maastricht has become an international hub for law.’

In the early nineties, Professor De Witte helped set up the study programme for EU Law. It was a cautious first step towards the internationalisation of the university. ‘We introduced comparative law and the English language to the programme. Later, the curriculum would grow to become as international as it currently is.’ That is a result of a very conscious decision made by Maastricht University. ‘As new European treaties seemed to be formed on a daily basis in the nineties – think of Maastricht, Nice, and Lisbon – the university decided to ‘play the EU card’. We realised the EU was quickly becoming a very relevant research topic. And this turned out to be true!’

European at heart

Colleagues and students greatly appreciate his work at the Faculty of Law. His personality significantly contributes to his popularity, but his knowledge and interest in European law are simply unparalleled. As Ruth Rubio Marín, one of his colleagues, puts it: ‘Professor de Witte is a true European at heart’. He knows how to make sense of European law like no other, and he is clear about his ideas on the institution’s future. ‘European law is part of the broader spectrum of international law. The two can mutually exist and flourish, and cooperation within the EU is a key factor determining the future of EU law. I see intensive cooperation within the EU as a positive development, but we must always stay critical and keep working towards even better practices.’

One of the ways in which Professor de Witte contributes to this ongoing development is his participation in the Maastricht Centre for European Law (MCEL), which he co-founded with Ellen Vos ten years ago. ‘The institute organises sessions twice a month, where members – or an external expert – can present ongoing research. It brings an interdisciplinary, transnational and multilingual perspective to our field of work.’

Professor De Witte looks ahead

Bruno de Witte

His work is far from done. In addition to his contributions to the MCEL, he will continue to do research and share his ideas. Above all, there is a fundamental issue that Professor De Witte believes needs to be addressed. ‘Decision-making is slow and ineffective within the EU. Unanimity is necessary, but rarely ever present. The time has come to abolish unanimity within EU decision-making.’ However convinced Professor De Witte might be of the importance of doing so, it seems that changes in this matter will take time. ‘If it happens, change will come one step at a time. But like I said – EU law is ever-evolving, so I will always have something to study!’

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