Five questions for Professor Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Vassilios Skouris

Vassilios Skouris has been affiliate Professor at Bucerius Law School since March 2016. The 68 year old Greek was the former President of the European Court of Justice and as such has much to tell us. Whilst he was at the Bucerius Law School in June, he took some time out to give us an interview about Hamburg, Europe and the art of differentiation.

Professor Skouris, you previously worked in Hamburg and studied for your PhD here. Have you now returned?

That’s right. I lived and worked in Hamburg from 1971 until 1978. After that I regularly visited Hamburg, or gave speeches here in Hamburg. Now I am making those connections again! Some of my former colleagues are still here in Hamburg and we will meet again soon. My main residence is still in Thessaloniki, but I am planning to be here several times a year for a week at a time at the Bucerius Law School to speak about European Law matters. This afternoon I am giving a speech on the “European Dimension of Administrative Law”.  

Given that you completed your legal training in Germany, how would you compare German legal education with that from the rest of Europe? 

I come from a family of lawyers, and therefore have an understanding of the Greek legal system. In addition, I received a German education, which was very good and taught me the basics of local law. Generally I can say that the problems are the same everywhere, but the solutions are different. At the time I received my legal education, it was not normal to be able to have a perspective across two different countries. Nowadays, international comparisons are an integral part of all legal studies. My dual-perspective education has definitely facilitated my access to European law. Generally I would say that European and International matters are very significant for legal education, a so-called “must”. With which I don’t mean that you need to learn the law of each European country’s legal system. People need to resolve matters at an international level, Civil Law, Criminal Law, Environmental Law and so on. I certainly have no concerns about the international perspective of the Bucerius Law School. The training offered by Bucerius is already very international. 

You were president of the European Court of Justice from 2003 until 2015. How has its relevance changed in recent years?

The European Union was originally an economic union. Now it is concerned with individual cases within the framework of Europe. For example arrest warrants, or custody issues. Legal knowledge has therefore become the art of differentiation. There are basic values which must be upheld, including over national borders. 

Generally it is for the European Member States to come to an agreement within this framework and to respect their obligations under European Union law. It is important to stress that European Union law takes precedence over national law and that this precedence is largely accepted. One cannot claim that the relationship “European Union law/national law” is free from problems, but none of the parties are really trying to create conflict.  The European Court of Justice pays attention to its relationship with the Member States’ Courts and in particular to the High Courts, including the Constitutional Courts. These relationships are not always easy, and therefore it is important to keep communication channels open and prevent conflict situations from arising. We have finally voluntarily agreed to regulate certain things on a European level and have seen with the recent refugee policy, how important that is. 

What is the official language of the European Court of Justice?

The working language is French.  It was agreed, at the time when the founding states were Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, that French would prevail as the mother tongue. This is to be distinguished from the official language. Cases can be submitted in all 24 languages of the 28 European Member States and the negotiations take place in the local language of the Member State concerned. There is simultaneous translation. Not every procedure is an oral hearing, although oral hearings can be important, they do not replace the written process. In court, one should be articulate, and I have always made an effort to understand several languages. My first foreign language was of course German, as I went to a German school, and later studied at the Free University of Berlin. After that I learnt English, and then French, which I needed to develop considerably at the European Court of Justice. Generally I advise young people to learn languages. I will be giving a speech on this topic, “Law and Language” to international lawyers at the Bucerius Law School this afternoon. Both are important. I don’t mean that one must speak several languages perfectly, rather that one has access to them. One should at least be able to read and understand some of them. If not, then one risks missing the important things from judicial decisions written in other languages.

What do you want to achieve as Affiliate Professor of the Law School?

Firstly, it is a privilege to work beside renowned colleagues. After a long time, I am delighted to have the opportunity to do academic work, to work with young people, and to teach. I missed that over the last few years. I also want to help expand the internationality of the Bucerius Law School. 

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Interview: Anja Reinbothe-Occhipinti

Hamburg