Shaping the Future of Europe

Students at European Integration LL.M. programs across the continent are learning about the legal aspects of EU expansion—and downsizing

What about if the United Kingdom decided to bow out?

Both of these scenarios would create a thorny legal situation for both the departing countries and the EU itself, says Svitlana Berezhna, marketing and public relations officer at Ghent University in Belgium.

That’s one of the reasons universities like Ghent offer LL.M. programs in European Integration law, a field specifically dealing with EU law, international law, and the legal issues of European integration and disintegration. 

Several schools in western and central Europe offer programs dealing with the legal issues raised by the existence of the EU, including the University of Hamburg, Tilburg University in the Netherlands, Ghent, and Saarland University in Germany, although a popular program at the University of Göttingen ended in winter 2014 due to state accreditation problems.

These programs draw students from Europe and beyond who are eager to snag a coveted job at one of Europe’s governmental institutions and help shape EU policy through its courts—often its most powerful institutions. 

The European Court of Justice, for instance, “has a huge impact, way beyond the case they are deciding,” says Inneke Plasschaert, who graduated from Ghent’s LL.M. in European Union Law in July 2014.

“They make decisions verging on political decisions. Despite the fact that you hear a lot about the EU states, what the courts are doing doesn’t get a lot of attention… There should be a bit more attention because it can have a huge impact on everyone.”

Ten years ago, in the lead-up to a block of countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe joining the EU, many of these programs dealt with legal policy shaping EU expansion. Expansion is still a hot topic, but now these programs also examine legal issues relating to the possibility of various member states leaving. For instance, the programs examine what might happen if Greece’s financial woes finally precipitate a so-called “Grexit” and drive the country from the EU. They explore what would happen if the United Kingdom, which has long had a shaky relationship with the union, decided to leave, or whether Scotland would be allowed to join the EU if it left the UK. 

Students in the LL.M. in European and International Law at the University of Saarland’s Europa Institut can tailor their interests to these specific European legal issues after they take several basic classes in European and international law, says Marc Bienert, the school’s deputy managing director for masters’ programs. 

Students can focus on issues such as the legal side of human rights in the EU, the EU’s place in the World Trade Organization, or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations with the United States. Bienert says the ongoing problems with EU member states such as Greece and Scotland are omnipresent at the school, with one student writing a master’s thesis about the Scottish referendum last fall.  

“He wrote his master’s thesis directly on this topic and really focused on potential solutions, how this could work out, what the problems are, things like that,” Bienert says. 

Faculty at the school also deal directly with practical legal issues facing the EU. Bienert says one of the school’s professors is the general secretary of the banking union in Greece, while another is responsible for monitoring human rights in Turkey following Turkey’s request to join the EU. 

Besides studying all these legal issues facing the EU, Bienert says students at his school also learn how to cooperate with people from diverse backgrounds, an essential skill for those who want to work in Europe’s institutions. With 75 new students coming from 35 to 45 countries every year, Bienert says students at the school simply must learn to put aside national differences and get along. For example, he sometimes sees relationships between Israeli and Palestinian or Indian and Pakistani students evolve from hostile to friendly.

“People learn to get along in hostile situations. That’s another advantage of the program. That’s one of the best things I always see at the end of the year,” Bienert says. 

Graduating into Europe’s institutions

Many of the students who attend these European Integration law programs go on to work at European governmental institutions or as lobbyists in Brussels.

“Most students who come to study EU law have big dreams of joining the European institutions,” Berezhna says. 

Students from the University of Ghent sometimes intern at the European Commission, or score jobs at the European Central Bank or the European Court of Human Rights.

But others return to their home countries to apply their EU expertise. Bienert says when he obtained an LL.M. at Saarland, one of his classmates was a Kazakhstani woman. Several years later, she had returned to her home country and was working on negotiations for Kazakhstan’s admittance to the WTO.  

Plasschaert worked in the Department of Social Law on the European Commission project during her time at Ghent, but now she works as a consultant for Deloitte in Belgium, applying her EU knowledge to the public sector. 

“It’s very important that people remain interested in the EU or become more interested, because its impact continues to grow, not only literally given the number of member states, but also in the number of fields that they take decisions,” Plasschaert says. 

Image: Niklas Morberg / Flickr (cropped)Creative Commons

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