Marc van der Woude, President of the General Court of the European Union: The General Court must ensure that the institutions of the EU respect the rule of law

Alina Matei
Alina Matei
Marc van der Woude
Marc van der Woude

Alina Matei: Thank you, Mr. Professor Marc van der Woude, President of the General Court of the European Union, for dedicating time to the readers of JURIDICE.ro. The General Court of the European Union is an international court. What is its main mission?

Marc van der Woude: The General Court must ensure that the institutions of the EU respect the rule of law. If individuals, companies or public entities have reasons to believe that EU acts infringe their rights, they may file actions before our Court, which will examine whether the institutions did not err in law or in fact. The judgements of the General Court can be challenged on points of law only before the Court of justice.

Alina Matei: Regarding the jurisdiction of the General Court of the European Union, what do you believe will be the trend, given that Regulation 2015/ 2422 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2015 amending Protocol no. 3 on the Statute of the CJEU refers to the progressive expansion of the jurisdiction of the General Court?

Marc van der Woude: It is too soon to answer your question at this stage. The General Court is still implementing the various measures needed to reach the objectives of Regulation 2015/2422, which relate in substance to the shortening of the length of proceedings and the increasing of the authority of its judgments, in particular by sending more cases to extended formationsof five judges . We hope to achieve these aims during the course of 2022, which will allow us to start reflecting about new competences after the partial renewal of our court in September of that year.

Alina Matei: The year 2020 was a particular one due to the COVID-19 Pandemic because, suddenly, the oral debates in front of the judges were replaced by the online ones. How has the General Court adapted to this unprecedented situation?

Marc van der Woude: After the first lock down in early Spring 2020, the General Court resumed its hearings in May. We immediately started to explore the possibilities to use video connections during the hearings, if representatives of the parties were unable to reach Luxembourg. One of the main technical difficulties we had to overcome to make this a success concerns the interpretation. As you know, our jurisdiction is a multilingual court. Gradually, we managed to ensure the use of three languages at a time. I would say that video technology has allowed us to pursue our work, albeit at a somewhat slower pace. If parties were unable to meet the technical requirements, the hearings had to be postponed.

Alina Matei: What do you think were the most difficult issues for the General Court to manage?

Marc van der Woude: The major issue we faced at the beginning of the crisis was to equip our staff and in particular our registry with IT equipment allowing our Court to become a virtual working platform. Our IT services did a great job by ensuring this transition in a smooth and efficient manner. Once that was done, we experienced, as many other professional organizations, that telework not only has upsides. Working at a distance may blur the distinction between private and professional life. It can also be inefficient when information has to be shared rapidly or when consensus has to be found, as is often the case in jurisdictions.

Alina Matei: Do you think that the online court system is one that can be expected outside of crisis situations?

Marc van der Woude: We are working on this question right now. There is consensus amongst us that video connections can be useful in the context of hearings. The difficulty is, however, to define the conditions under which such connections should be allowed. On the one hand, it may be tempting to facilitate access to courts by using more video connections. On the other hand, court hearings have their proper dynamics, which are difficult to reproduce in a virtual setting.

Alina Matei: What are the main concerns of the General Court?

Marc van der Woude: Obviously, we have a concern that all courts have: getting the work done as best as possible in a reasonable delay. Apart from this general concern, our Court has taken measures to facilitate the handling of large groups of cases, to spread the workload and to promote more proactive case management. We are also reflecting on the way to reduce the size of our judgements and to improve their readability.

Alina Matei: Last year, in an article signed by you and published on JURIDICE.ro – https://www.juridice.ro/essentials/3926/doua-evolutii-care-submineaza-relatiile-de-incredere-intre-jurisdictiile-uniunii-europene – you talked about the necessary dialogue for the functioning of jurisdictions. In your opinion, does the dialogue work?

Marc van der Woude: The dialogue to which I referred concerns the functioning of the preliminary reference procedure of Article 277 TFEU, allowing or sometimes imposing national courts to ask questions about the interpretation and validity of EU acts to the Court of Justice. As you know, the General Court is not competent to deal with these questions. Even so, we closely follow the case law of the Court of Justice, in particular since we are the court that assesses the legality of Union acts in the first place. From this perspective, I would like to make two comments. First, I consider that the procedure works well in the large majority of cases. Second, occasional problems may arise in relatively new areas of Union law, where the dividing line between EU and national competence has not yet crystallized. This is a normal feature of the organic growth of the EU legal order. By contrast, more worrisome are situations in which national courts do not follow the interpretation of rules that clearly fall with the ambit of EU law. Fortunately, these situations seldom occur.

Alina Matei: Each judge of the General Court of the European Union has two legal secretaries. How does this team work?

Marc van der Woude: The way judges organise the functioning of their teams differs considerably from one person to another. In general, legal secretaries assist their judges in making the internal reports and preparing draft judgements. They therefore interact considerably with the judge. There are also judges who request their legal secretaries to help them in studying the case files and draft judgments prepared by other judges. It must be also noted that each of the ten 5-judges chambers has 3 additional legal secretaries whom the president of chambers can dispatch depending on current workload. In this way resources are allocated efficiently.

Alina Matei: What satisfactions do judges at the General Court of the European Union have?

Marc van der Woude: Here again, that is a question to which the answer may differ from colleague to another. So, I will give you my personal view. First, the cases we deal with are interesting. They give you an insight in the, often complex, functioning of the institutions of the Union. Second, working in an international environment with colleagues coming from very different horizons is a fascinating experience. Solutions that seem obvious to one person may turn out not to be so clear for others. Despite all these differences, we manage to do our job, in a quite satisfactory manner.

Alina Matei: You went to Romania in 2019, together with Mrs. Octavia Spineanu-Matei, one of the Romanian judges at the General Court. Are you planning a new visit to Romania?

Marc van der Woude: First, you may have heard that judge Octavia Spineanu-Matei will join the Court of Justice. This means that we lose an excellent and pleasant colleague. Fortunately, a solid Romanian presence in our court is assured by judge Mirela Stancu and Ion Galea, who will join us on the 27th of October. Second, as long as the Covid-crisis last, we should remain careful to embark in international travelling, although the prospect to revisit Romania is very tempting.

Alina Matei: A message, please, to the readers of JURIDICE.ro.

Marc van der Woude: EU law is not only a matter for specialists in distant courts. It is a matter of common concern to us all, since it is at the basis of the European project, which purports to provide us peace, prosperity and security in an uncertain world.

Alina Matei: Thank you for accepting this interview!

Marc van der Woude: Thank you for contacting me.