Professor René de Groot to retire

After 35 years in Maastricht and 42 years in the world of academia, René de Groot officially retired on 14 October 2016. How does this international expert on nationality law look back on his career? And what does the future hold?

R. de Groot

What brought you to Maastricht in 1981?
‘I had been working at the University of Groningen since 1974 when I heard that Maastricht planned to start a new law faculty. I was excited to try something new. Maastricht was a logical choice for me, personally, because my mother came from Belgium and Hildegard [Schneider, his wife and the current dean of the Faculty of Law, Ed.] was drawn to South Limburg's proximity to Germany and preferred it to the Groningen region. My father, like myself, was born and raised in Groningen.’

Did you have enough time to devote to your research during those early days of the faculty's development?
‘Of course, because there were very few students in those days. My publication rate increased instead of decreased and I also started writing my dissertation in those early days. I was still working on my PhD when I arrived, which was a prerequisite for becoming a professor. If you opt for an academic career, I believe you should set the bar as high as possible. Incidentally, I find it fascinating to be able to reflect freely on different topics, without being bound to specific clients.’

When were you granted a professorship?
‘It was actually very unexpected. I knew I was at the top of the appointment list for professor of Comparative Law and Private International Law, but I didn't expect to be appointed until the end of the year, after obtaining my PhD. I graduated on 27 October 1988; Vic Bonke chaired the ceremony as rector magnificus. He said: "This is when I'd normally conclude the ceremony, but I have the pleasure of reading one more document." And that was my appointment as professor! I was blown away!’

What did the title mean to you?
‘I've always found the profession extremely enjoyable. The title can open a lot of doors, especially abroad. You suddenly belong to the academic elite in your home country, which gives you a lot of clout. I was invited to brainstorm about new standards in the field of nationality law at the request of the Council of Europe and the UNHCR.’

What fascinates you about nationality law?
‘It's very exciting to work at the interface of different disciplines. There's public law on the one hand, which addresses issues such as who belongs to a specific state. But there are also close ties to private law, which deals with personal and family law and international private law. The topic has always fascinated me and I think I can now be considered one of the leading international experts in this field. It started in my youth, with my aunts who struggled with dual nationality. This is what I plan to open my valedictory speech with. Hildegard felt it was time to share this with the public.’

What are you most proud of?
‘In terms of my professional contributions, I'm extremely honoured to have been given the chance to work on several international documents. I was the expert adviser for an extensive recommendation from the Council of Ministers to all 47 Member States of the Council of Europe regarding the position of children in nationality law. This means I designed the report, processed changes and wrote the explanatory notes. I did the same for an international document for the UNHCR. This was the real pinnacle of my professional career.

But I also genuinely enjoyed teaching and supervising students. It was wonderful! And I plan to continue with this after I retire. I'm currently supervising twelve PhD candidates and am taking on new candidates as well.’

What did you struggle with?
‘Certain individual incidents were particularly difficult. It’s really heart-breaking when a PhD candidate gives up on their dissertation. They've devoted years to their work and when it doesn't work out in the end it's extremely hard on both the candidate and the supervisor. This has happened about five times in my career.

I also found grading exams to be quite tedious. I tried to get it over with as soon as possible. Stacks and stacks of the same questions and answers...And it's incredibly frustrating when you think you've explained something clearly and created such easy questions that all of the students should be able to pass easily, but many of them don’t. That can be quite disappointing.’

Has anything really angered you in your career?
‘I'm extremely critical of Dutch law; I know its weaknesses inside and out, because that's my field of expertise. It's not terrible, but there's certainly room for improvement. What really drives me crazy is that there's no protection of legitimate expectations in Dutch nationality law. Imagine finding out you're not a Dutch national because, according to your file, you were never granted Dutch citizenship. This could be the case for Dutch nationals who adopted children before 1998, but never had the adoption papers verified by a judge. In this case, the children aren't Dutch citizens. They could apply for an urgent naturalisation procedure, but if they have even the slightest criminal record, it becomes even more difficult. The Dutch Supreme Court and the Council of State claim that any other method goes against legal security. I don't understand this and like I always tell my students: "If anyone understands it, please explain it to me." I hope this changes in my lifetime.’

In your valedictory speech you condemn the legislative proposal, which the House will vote on later this month, to revoke a person's nationality if they have been suspected of engaging in terrorist activities. [click here for the press release]
‘For some parties, this proposal is a bid to win votes. It never ceases to amaze me the lengths some will go to secure votes. We should never sacrifice the principles of our legal system in our fight against Jihadism. It's important for lawyers to stand up and say enough is enough. Turkey is a great example of the consequences this can have for professors and lawyers. It's terrifying and downright shameful that Europe isn't protesting this more vehemently. It really bothers me.’

What will your life look like as a professor emeritus?
‘I look forward to spending more time supervising PhD candidates. I also plan to continue teaching a bit and write about nationality law and international family law and individual rights. I'd also like to visit museums more often, do some gardening and write about non-legal issues as well. Like my collection of wooden dolls from the Kuna tribe in Panama. [You can read more about René and Hildegard's collection in the web magazine  , Ed.] I look forward to having more time to try new things.’

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