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A passionate professor in the centre of economic power

Written by  Jos Cortenraad Wednesday, 02 June 2010 00:00

Peter van den Bossche, professor of International Economic Law at Maastricht University, was appointed judge at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in late 2009. This is a top judicial position for which only one European is eligible. With thanks to Maastricht University (UM), where the Belgian Van den Bossche will continue his professorship. “No matter how great this WTO position is, I’d consider quitting teaching a very high price to pay.”

Van den Bossche, not to put too fine a point on it, is itching to start his first court case at the Appellate Body. This is the WTO’s highest judicial body, a college of seven judges from all continents of the world. His first case will likely concern a complaint from the United States against the European Union about the controversial state support the EU has been giving to aircraft producer Airbus. With the stakes as high as €200 billion, it would be a great case for a debutant to sink his teeth into.

“You can say that again. Of course, it’s not certain yet whether there really is going to be an appeal in that case, but the media is already assuming there will be. Naturally, not every case involves this much money or such a major clash between two economic superpowers. In other cases, for example, you might see a developing country taking on a superpower. It might only involve a couple of million then, but to me those cases are just as important. The point is that countries are getting the chance to seek justice in this world.”

Stern judge

Van den Bossche (1959, Antwerp) is more friendly Belgian than stern judge, but together with his colleagues at the WTO head office in Geneva, he is leaving an important footprint on world trade. He chooses his words carefully, but still talks openly. He recognises that there is still a lot of work to be done before world trade can be considered ‘fair’. “World trade generates prosperity. But how is this prosperity divided at the national level? We judges have no say in this side of world trade, but we’re not blind to it either. It is our task to determine whether or not the current regulations of international trade law are being followed. We have to interpret the WTO treaties and sit in judgement on the trade disputes brought before us. We obviously have to do so in a completely independent and unbiased manner.”


The Appellate Body wields a great deal of authority and power. “The WTO now has 153 members who represent 98% of world trade”, says Van den Bossche. “The disputes between WTO members often concern politically very sensitive matters such as national legislation for the protection of public health or national policy measures in support of the domestic economy. A WTO member cannot escape from the legal power of the Appellate Body to settle these disputes. Moreover, compliance with the rulings of the Appellate Body can be forced by means of trade sanctions.”

Van den Bossche has found himself right at the centre of the economic power. Surely it must be the icing on the cake of his career? “I can’t deny it. It’s a top position but, above all, it is a heavy responsibility. A year ago I would have even dreamed of this. But it has happened, and I’m proud of that.”


It is not possible to apply for Van den Bossche’s position. You have to be asked and then nominated. “I was first nominated by the Belgian government and then by the European Commission as one of the candidates from the European Union. After a demanding international ‘election campaign’, the WTO members appointed me. I’m certain that my career at Maastricht University has been a contributing factor. I got all the space I needed to make myself known in this field of international law. The Board of the Faculty of Law and the Executive Board of the University have always supported me. Most important has been the support of my colleagues. Without that a lot of the things I’ve achieved just wouldn’t have been possible."

Maastricht holds a special place in Van den Bossche's heart. “Teaching is my passion. I love acquainting students with international economic law and, most of all, challenging them to think about the sometimes difficult balance between free trade and other societal values. I’d hate to have to give that up.” Maastricht University, too, would no doubt also consider that a great loss. Only a handful of European universities are home to someone in such a high position. What’s more, Van den Bossche is the director and the driving force behind a new master’s programme, the Advanced Master in International and European Economic Law (IEEL).

Peter van den Bossche is Professor of International Economic Law at Maastricht University. He graduated magna cum laude from the law faculty of Antwerp. He obtained his LLM at the University of Michigan, and his PhD at the European University Institute in Florence. Van den Bossche has also worked at the European Court in Luxembourg and the WTO in Geneva. He wrote the manual ‘The Law and Policy of the World Trade Organization’, which is widely used all over the world. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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