Wouter van Ballegooij and Taru Spronken Wouter van Ballegooij and Taru Spronken Philip Driessen

A meeting of minds

Written by  Femke Kools Thursday, 15 October 2015 14:13

“It’ll be alright.” These were the reassuring words with which Taru Spronken took over the supervision of Wouter van Ballegooij’s PhD research in 2012. She hadn’t read a single page of the book he had been working on for seven years, but she was familiar with his expertise. The past three years have been a joy for him. “My dissertation was like a flower waiting to bloom. She drew it out into the light.”


At the start of the interview, four days after his PhD defence, Van Ballegooij hands a black pen to Spronken. He’d borrowed it from her to sign a few dissertations for his loved ones. She puts the pen back into a leather holder containing two matching ones. “My father gave this to me when I got my PhD”, Spronken explains. “So I’m glad you remembered.”

Van Ballegooij had just achieved something she once did too: successfully defending a PhD while holding down a busy job. By the time she started her research, Spronken had been working as a lawyer for years. “I was writing pleadings and case files every day, so I was sure the writing would be no problem. But a dissertation is a whole different story. It’s entirely your own work and it really shows who you are. That isn’t safe or easy; it makes you vulnerable and requires courage.”

Van Ballegooij knows exactly what she means. During the first seven years of his research, he was supervised by another professor from a different university. When their views on the topic began to diverge, the PhD candidate had to find a new supervisor. “I found it hard to explore my topic without considering the human and practical implications. Taru and her colleague André Klip are practising lawyers. They acknowledged my perspective and there was a certain trust between us, which is invaluable in a fragile relationship like this. The book is now twice as long and explains my views in full.” “As a PhD candidate,” Spronken adds, “you have to be able to approach your supervisor with something you’re not sure of yet. If you keep hearing that it’s not good enough, you’ll eventually lose your nerve.”

Van Ballegooij’s research focuses on the mutual recognition of legal systems in the European Union. At present, whenever a European Arrest Warrant has been issued EU countries hand over suspects to other countries, despite the fact that the conditions of imprisonment differ vastly from one EU country to another. To Eurosceptics, this is one of many examples of why the EU doesn’t work and why further integration is a bad idea. While Van Ballegooij does not share this opinion, he does argue that the concept of mutual recognition must be redefined.

“When charges are filed in another member state, this has consequences in the Netherlands; so too if the roles are reversed. But the decision to put a Dutch citizen in a foreign prison is taking it to another level. I’m arguing for a distinction between recognition and implementation. And in the implementation, you must take into account the individual situation. Recognising each other’s interests doesn’t necessarily entail setting aside your own interests and those of your citizens and residents, provided that these are in accordance with the objectives of the EU. Because consumer rights and human rights are objectives of the EU as well.”

Expert meeting
Spronken was aware of Van Ballegooij’s research from the outset. “Our areas run parallel to each other, and we kept bumping into each other at conferences and expert meetings.” Eventually, at a meeting in Brussels in 2012, Van Ballegooij took Spronken aside and asked her if he could finish his dissertation at Maastricht University. “I said yes right away. Later, he said: ‘You can still take it back – you should read the book first.’ The manuscript was more or less finished. But it had a certain tentativeness, politically speaking, so I encouraged him to explain his reasoning in detail. That was the main goal. Write what you mean.”

“I can’t remember a single moment when I thought: ‘I disagree’,” says Van Ballegooij. Spronken: “Was that annoying? Not at all.” Van Ballegooij laughs: “What was annoying was in the spring of 2014 when you gave me more feedback, which meant another round of revision. I was going on holiday to Japan and I’d hoped to be finished by then, but I knew myself that it wasn’t perfect yet. I’d just been working on it for so long…”

“So often a PhD candidate starts to let things slide because they desperately want to finish before going on holiday”, explains Spronken. “It’s our job to say, ‘It’d be a shame for you to leave it at this. Just go on holiday, put it out of your mind, and when you come back everything will fall into place.’”

And that’s exactly what happened. They both have fond memories of the research process as well as the defence. “I was calm during my defence, because I was confident in my message”, says Van Ballegooij. “This was my story.” Spronken: “His experience also stood him in good stead in the many discussions at the European Parliament. He was really ready to show his work to the world. Legal scholars are sharply divided on this topic: it’s never quite done. But this book is.”

Taru Spronken (1956) has been professor of Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure at Maastricht University since 2005, and Advocate General at the Netherlands Supreme Court since 2013. She previously served as deputy judge at the Maastricht District Court and deputy justice in Arnhem and ’s Hertogenbosch.

Wouter van Ballegooij (1978) defended his PhD dissertation ‘The nature of mutual recognition in European law: Re-examining the notion from an individual rights perspective with a view to its further development in the criminal justice area’ on 9 July 2015. Over the past eight years he has held various positions at the European Parliament.

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