Double interview

Listen to the minority too

Hanneke van Eijken, lawyer and poet, is the first holder of the new Alex Brenninkmeijer chair. Sacha Prechal, Professor of European Law and, since 2010, judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union, helped write the profile for the chair. How do these experts see the state of democracy and the rule of law in the year 2024?

foto in kapel van twee vrouwen
Image: Loek Hennipman
close-up van Hanneke van Eijken

Hanneke van Eijken is the first Professor of Rule of Law and Democracy under Utrecht University’s Alex Brenninkmeijer Chair. Hanneke obtained her PhD in European citizenship and the constitutionalisation of the EU. She also teaches law students outside of the university and is deputy judge at Gelderland District Court. She is also a poet ( As a child, Hanneke saved her favourite words, which she now records in a notebook.

close-up van Sacha Prechal

Sacha Prechal was born in Prague and came to the Netherlands when she was nine. She studied Law in Groningen, obtained her PhD in 1995 at the UvA and has taught European law at a number of different universities. Since 2010, she has been a judge at the Court of Justice of the EU in Luxembourg. She is also Professor of European Law at Utrecht University. She enjoys reading detective novels. Sacha was married to Alex Brenninkmeijer.

Sacha Prechal is astounded that the rule of law is a topic of discussion during the current formation of a government. The fundamental rights are the ultimate check on the power of the government. If we start negotiating these, what will be next? Coincidentally or otherwise, we are having this conversation at the end of February on the day that the report by the parliamentary enquiry committee on Fraud Policy and Services, ‘Blind voor mens en recht’ [Blind to humanity and justice], was published. The committee investigated the government’s policy on fraud over the past thirty years and how it could happen that the services provided to citizens have failed to such an extent. How can the government win back citizens’ trust? Sacha: Among other things, by acting on the rulings of the courts and the recommendations of the Ombudsman. And not letting things get bogged down in bureaucracy. We get onto the importance of legal certainty: laws and rules must be clear, predictable and easy to apply. This is important not only for citizens but for civil servants too. If legislation is unclear, you risk it being applied randomly, says Sacha.

Let ‘ordinary people’ help make decisions
The authority of the government is legitimised by the inhabitants of a country, says Hanneke. But democracy is about more than just being able to vote. More too than trying to find your beliefs in an election manifesto and then voting for the party that best represents them. Democracy is about citizens’ ability to help define the policy of the government. Citizens’ assemblies are a good example of this. Hanneke mentions a well-known Irish example from 2018 on the relaxation of the law on abortion. Citizens were randomly chosen to have their say and came from all layers of the population. There were major differences of opinion, so a lot was at stake. These citizens were also provided with relevant information over a long period of time. Based on this citizens’ assembly, following a referendum, the ban on abortion was subsequently removed from the Irish Constitution. This probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Or take the ‘Conference on the future of Europe’, for example. Between 2021 and 2022, eight hundred people from all over the European Union talked to each other over the course of a year about the sort of Europe they wanted to live in. The result was 49 concrete proposals, which were presented to the presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission. Hanneke: As a result of this, among other things, there will now be EU legislation on plastic packaging and the exclusion of PFAS. The government entering into a dialogue with citizens is crucial for mutual trust. That requires political guts.

If citizens are given the opportunity to have their say and the government doesn’t act on it, it damages the trust that they have in the government

Citizen participation that’s “just for show” doesn’t work
They both say that the government must involve citizens in policy. But how? Sacha: Citizens have had input for a long time now. But all too often, monitoring and follow-up are lacking. If citizens are given the opportunity to have their say and the government doesn’t act on it, it damages the trust that they have in the government. Hanneke: Indeed — allowing citizens to have their say over a slice of cake to keep them happy is not how it works! In the context of my chair, I’m keen to research the effectiveness of citizens’ assemblies. It may be that training is needed for civil servants around how these new forms of citizen involvement should be organised. It’s not easy though.

What can we citizens do to exercise our democratic rights? Citizens are already doing a lot, responds Hanneke, take the climate marches, for example. Young people who don’t yet have the right to vote are letting their voices be heard!” Sacha thinks it is wrong for too much responsibility to be placed on citizens. “The question must be ‘How can the government be more open?’. Take your citizens seriously. Engage with people, talk to them.

Hanneke adds an important point. I see a discrepancy in how unaware we are of our EU citizenship and, at the same time, how naturally we exercise the rights associated with it. We don’t even think twice about going for a weekend away in Paris or ordering headphones from Italy, for example. There are European directives for water quality, food safety, safe toys … There are so many rights that we exercise without even realising it. It’s a real shame! Politicians often say that ‘Brussels’ is imposing a particular regulation, but I know from experience that all the member states draw up legislation together in Brussels in a constant dialogue. Suggesting that something has to be done because ‘Brussels’ says so, while, in actual fact, our civil servants, ministers and MPs are drawing these laws up together, is ridiculous.

When the problems that you face on a daily basis demand all your attention, you won’t be thinking about the European Green Deal, for example

Twee vrouwen in een kapel

What plans does Hanneke have for this chair?
Hanneke: “To stimulate the dialogue around democracy and the rule of law in as many different places as possible — among academics and judges, in ministries, in communities, in schools and among trainee lawyers, etc. Everyone must be able to understand what democracy means.

I also think it’s important that the lawyers of the future have the courage to take a broader perspective on things. That they are critical and reflective about the law and their own role within it. In the Master’s module ‘Europe for the people’, my students have to interview at least two citizens about what the EU policy on asylum means for them, for example. They interview staff at a reception centre for asylum seekers, for example. I think it’s crucial that our students, who will soon be judges or policy advisers, have actually talked to citizens outside of their usual circle about the impact of legislation and policy on citizens.”

Festival Europa, which Hanneke and her team are organising on 31 May, is a good example of the sort of project that she wants to set up more often as part of the chair. The festival will include a leaders debate, journalists, academics, poetry and music. It’s free of charge and will take place in Utrecht Public Library on the Neude I hope that a lot of citizens will vote in the European elections in an informed way. That way, they can help define the future of Europe, of their everyday lives and of future generations. There are also some young people who never go to the big city. That’s why we’re keen to take this into communities, too, says Hanneke. Actually, I’d like to take Festival Europa to the whole country. I come from a small village in Zeeland where hospitals and schools are being closed. That really affects the residents. When the problems that you face on a daily basis demand all your attention, you won’t be thinking about the European Green Deal, for example. In the context of the chair, I want to establish a genuine dialogue between science, education and practice. Sacha agrees with her: As a government, you have to ask yourself, how do I do right by all citizens. If you only do what 50 per cent of the electorate + 1 want, you are excluding a lot of people. An effective democracy goes hand in hand with respect and tolerance towards minorities. Hanneke: It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that everyone can participate. Not just the citizen’s.

Alex Brennikmeijer

To keep the ideas of Alex Brenninkmeijer alive and to develop further academically, the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance decided to set up a chair in his name.