Skip to content
Department of Law - Academy of European Law

Revisiting constitutional law: EUI welcomes back Professor Gráinne de Búrca

On 1 September, Professor Gráinne De Búrca joined the EUI Law Department. An expert on EU law, human rights and equality, democracy, and governance, she comes from New York University. In an interview, she describes her scholarship to date and what attracts her to working at the EUI.

18 September 2023 | Research

De Burca profile_News

Please introduce yourself. What is your background and how did you choose to specialise in constitutional law?

I’m from Ireland and my first language was Irish. I’ll take this opportunity to say that my first name is pronounced “Grawn-yeh”, with a long aw, not “Grain”.

I applied to university with an interest in studying languages. Both my parents were teachers. My mother, who taught Irish in a public school, warned me against specialising in foreign languages because she said I would end up teaching – an exhausting and at times frustrating line of work. So, I studied law, which had some of the same attractions for me: systems of meaning, challenges of interpretation, and the like. It’s an irony, of course, that I ended up in the academy, teaching.  Happily, I found it neither frustrating nor exhausting, but very rewarding!

My focus hasn’t been exclusively on constitutional law, at least not in a narrow sense. I have concentrated on different subfields of law at different phases in my career. At an early stage I worked on British constitutional law, then I shifted to EU law, and most recently, while in the US, my focus was human rights law and other aspects of international law and governance. 

For those who are not versed in the subfields of law, can you briefly explain the subject matter of constitutional law?

What connected my interest in the three subject areas I just mentioned were, broadly speaking, issues of constitutional law. A succinct description of constitutionalism is that it captures the relation between law and politics. And while constitutional law was traditionally linked to the nation state, constitutional questions today arise at the regional and global level too: questions of democracy, political accountability, human rights, and citizenship, amongst others. 

The Court of Justice of the European Union, for example, has talked about the EU in terms of a constitutional system for decades, even though the EU is not a state, and even though the attempt to draft a Constitution for the EU was rejected by several member states in 2005. 

You are already familiar with the EUI and many of the Law faculty, having served as co-director of the Academy of European Law (AEL). What are you most looking forward to?

I found the EUI to be a unique place in part because it is thoroughly transnational – in its research focus as well as in its mix of faculty, researchers, staff, and visitors – and at the same time it creates an intimate setting for collaboration, not just within departments but among and across them. It helps that the Institute focuses on these four primary departments that are all connected to the social sciences. 

The previous period I spent at the EUI more than two decades ago was a rich and formative period for me. My main research focus then was European integration and the law. Now I am returning after 20 years of academic work on a wider array of global issues and I hope to bring the perspectives and insights gained during that time back into a specifically European setting.

Are you working on any research projects or publications at the moment? 

I have recently been studying the rise of illiberalism, not just within authoritarian orders but also within democratic countries, and specifically at the ways in which illiberal actors have been using human rights law and language. Rather than opposing human rights and other liberal norms, illiberal leaders have been re-purposing these norms and laws. My co-author and I have called this the “misappropriation” of human rights. We have examined collaboration between religious and political actors, as well as other social groups, in mobilising in various ways to reshape key aspects of human rights law in illiberal directions. The EUI is likely to be a good place to collaborate with other colleagues on this subject.

I have also been working with other colleagues on issues of gender within the legal academy, and specifically on continuing gender inequality even in this privileged setting.

Although unfortunately perhaps my most urgent writing task at the moment is to complete a new edition of an EU law textbook that I co-author!

What courses do you plan to teach at EUI?

I’ll be teaching a full-year seminar jointly with Professor Sarah Nouwen on editing a law journal, which is intended to help researchers understand more about academic writing and the law journal publishing process, and to develop both their writing and their review skills.  We have both been co-editor-in-chief of two different law journals and will draw on our experience and practice in that context.

In the second semester, I’m participating in a doctoral research workshop on European law with three colleagues (professors Deirdre Curtin, Urska Sadl and Joanne Scott). And in the third semester, together with Joanne Scott and Claire Kilpatrick, I will run a workshop in which authors who are preparing chapters for a forthcoming book (Revising the fundamentals of EU law, inspired by the scholarship of Bruno De Witte), arising from the courses they gave at the Academy of European law this past summer, will present and refine their drafts with feedback and comments from researchers and professors.  

Among the areas of expertise you list in your CV is international relations (IR). This, along with your work on human rights, governance, and discrimination would seem to signal a strong interdisciplinary bent, particularly in common with political scientists. What do you view as the collaboration challenges for those from IR and from IL (international law)?

I have been fortunate to work with colleagues from other disciplines, including international relations, and have learned a lot from them.

But as always with interdisciplinarity, the challenge is to bring together ideas from different areas of specialised knowledge and actually be able to talk productively with one another, beyond a superficial exchange. You want to share ideas and build on the insights, methodologies, and contributions of several disciplines, without necessarily becoming a specialist in the other’s field. I very much look forward to working with and learning from colleagues across the EUI during my time here.

Last update: 18 September 2023

Go back to top of the page