The constitution never ceases to fascinate Monica Claes

Written by  Jolien Linssen Tuesday, 03 January 2012 14:56

Think of a professor and you are apt to picture an absent-minded, white-haired man, perhaps even wearing a lab coat. Though this kind of characters is more likely to be found in films than in real life, the truth is that the vast majority of those holding top academic positions in the Netherlands are men. With the appointment of Monica Claes, professor of European and Comparative Constitutional Law, Maastricht University can be doubly pleased: she is first and foremost an inspiring researcher who, by the way, happens to be a woman.

 For someone who never explicitly dreamed of an academic career, Belgian Monica Claes has built an impressive CV over the years. “During my studies at the Law Faculty of the Catholic University of Leuven, I discovered that I was very interested in constitutional law because of its close connection to politics”, she says. “Soon after, I became fascinated by European integration and its legal implications.”

When talking to Claes, one realises that perhaps career planning is less about planning and more about doing the things you like to do. “I have always enjoyed studying, writing and researching”, she explains, “and that is what I’ve been doing for a long time now”. After a postgraduate degree at the Bruges College of Europe, a PhD at Maastricht University and a professorship in Tilburg, she has now returned to Maastricht to, first of all, complete The European and National Constitutional Law Project (EuNaCon), for which she has received a large grant from the European Research Council.


“It is an enormous project, very challenging and enjoyable”, Claes enthusiastically refers to EuNaCon. “Together with four post-docs, I am carrying out comprehensive comparative legal research into the national constitutions of a dozen of member states of the European Union (EU). These constitutions are often referred to in EU treaties as being based on common principles and traditions. Strangely enough, no thorough research into these common principles and traditions has been done”.

The same holds for the concept of constitutional identity, another matter that, in Claes’s opinion, has been in dire need of academic attention. “The term constitutional identity appears in both French and German constitutional laws, as well as in the Treaty of Lisbon”, she explains. “In the latter, it is stated that the EU maintains to respect the constitutional identity of its individual member states. Nonetheless, the meaning of the concept remains vague. What is this constitutional identity made of? When is it violated, and who ought to judge whether this is the case?”
There is still a good deal of work to do in this field and that makes EuNaCon, an ambitious project by nature, even more interesting. “I believe people have been waiting for this type of research”, says Claes. “This really helps science move forward. It is exciting.”

Ivory Tower

Claes is a scholar at heart, yet one that is clearly aware that her responsibility as a professor transcends the boundaries of the academic world. Being a member of the Young Academy, part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences does not only give her the opportunity to meet colleagues from other disciplines, but also to contribute to the popularisation of their collective academic efforts. “We cannot lock ourselves up in an ivory tower”, she states. “We have an obligation towards society”.

An obligation which made itself felt last year, when she was appointed a member of the State Commission Constitution [Staatscommisie Grondwet] by the Dutch cabinet. The commission’s task was to investigate the Dutch constitution on a number of issues, including its accessibility and meaning for Dutch citizens, its relation to international treaties and the absence of a preamble. Claes: “It was a fun and fascinating experience, but at the same time a very difficult one. We were working under time pressure and although the commission initially seemed to agree on a lot of matters, the opposite turned out to be the case. So I think it is unlikely that our recommendations will be incorporated into the constitution”.

Instead of changing the constitution, Claes would like to see politicians using it more actively than they do now. “The Netherlands lack a firm constitutional tradition”, she says. “Delicate political issues are usually solved by consensus, without turning to the constitution. This is a pity, for it could perfectly serve as a guideline. Because it enumerates the values that we deem most important, it poses the limits between which the political debate ought to take place. Both in politics, as well as in the Council of State, its significance should be articulated more explicitly, I find. Someone needs to stand up for the constitution and the values set out in it”

In her role as professor of European and Comparative Constitutional Law, Monica Claes is doing this in her very own way. “I never set myself the goal to become a professor before reaching the age of forty, or something like that”, she admits. “But while I was working hard on the topics that I am interested in, this opportunity opened itself up to me. It is a job that asks for planning and organization on the part of my family, but I enjoy it a lot. Now that I am a professor, I also want to be a good one. I still have a lot of work to do at Maastricht University.”

Monica Claes studied law at KU Leuven (Belgium) and specialised in European Law at the College of Europe in Bruges. She completed her doctoral studies at Maastricht University. Her PhD thesis entitled "The National Courts' Mandate in the European Constitution" was awarded the Staatsrechtprijs in 2006. She lectured at Maastricht until 2005, then worked as a first senior lecturer and then a professorial position, at Tilburg University. Claes is currently working as professor of European and Comparative Constitutional Law at Maastricht University.

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