The Court of Justice of the European Union, Luxembourg

The Court of Justice of the European Union, Luxembourg

by Dion Kramer

Located in the far-off, fairy-tale capital of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, it could not be said that the architecture of the Court of Justice of the European Union seriously tries to disguise its status as one of Europe’s most powerful institutions. Last year’s addition of a third golden ‘tower’ to the already impressive skyline of buildings on the Kirchberg plateau (‘a sort of latter-day bureaucratic Acropolis’) rather symbolises the growing prestige and self-confidence of the European Union’s legal arbiter.

The Court, established with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, largely operated below the political surface during the first decades of integration while it almost secretly announced the constitution of a ‘new legal order’ in the famous Van Gend en Loos case. Now, half a century later, the Court is asked to deal with metapolitical questions ranging from the legality of Eurozone bail-outs, judicial independence in Poland, mega-trade deals like CETA and the UK’s withdrawal from the Union.

From this perspective, the expansion of the Court’s buildings over time not only represents the expansion of the European Union in geographical and political terms, but also the power of the court vis-à-vis the other institutions. Architect Dominique Perrault, responsible for the Court’s major renovations over the past decades, explained the layering of new buildings on top of old building as intentionally representing the ‘morphological development’ of the institution.

As Judith Resnik and Dennis Curtis describe in their seminal book Representing Justice (2011), the Court has transformed its nomadic existence into an iconic, monumental existence. Once the Court opened its first two golden towers in 2008, it solidified its public presence as if to say that the institution is here to stay for a long time.

Photo 1: View on the Court from the southeast, with the ‘Palais’ on the left.
Photo 2: The three golden towers of the Court in the early morning light.
Photo 3: One of the three golden towers in the early morning light.

While the thin, golden towers might attract attention from the outside, these are mostly occupied by the linguistic services, who make almost half of the Court’s staff and produce more than 1,2 million pages of legal texts every year. The ‘legal heart’ of the Court is located in the ‘old’ Palais, where the main courtroom, the Grande Salle is decorated with a majestic, floating golden flower that encircles the judges’ benches. In this room, the Court can gather full court, an occasion reserved for special judgments like the recent Wightman judgment on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. It is perhaps ironic from that perspective that this courtroom has space for 41 judges, revealing the institution’s expectation of future enlargements rather than withdrawals.

Photo 4: The main court room.
Photo 5: Your blogger in the main court room

The Court is decorated with art donated by the Member States. A painting drawing particular attention is the one by André Hambourg from 1972. Entitled Justice and Peace, it consists of six panels that form a homage to Luxembourg and the five other founding states of what is now the European Union. If not exhibited in the Court – the panels actually used to liven up the main courtroom for many years – one could easily identify the painting as kitsch; with its bright, graffiti type colours and rainbows, it conveys an almost ironic take on the foundation of the Union. While a feminine figure holding a sheaf of corn behind two male figures shaking hands is supposed to symbolise ‘Peace’, an observer of the European Union cannot but think of its agricultural policy. On both sides we find cityscapes of the six founding Member States. From left to right we find Mechlin, the Hague, Paris, Trier, Rome and, apparently, Robert Schuman’s house of birth.

Photo 6: Peace and Justice by André Hambourg, 1972. Photo courtesy: Anna Shvetsova

While the Court aspires to be transparent and open, this is neither particularly represented in its buildings nor in its accessibility. Rather, the gold, shiny and brown-blinded windows transpire aloofness and grandeur. Quite a remarkable contrast with the Court’s main nemesis, the German Constitutional Court, which is housed in relatively modest, concrete 1960s buildings that have an airy feel to them (and was recently renovated for 10 times less the money used for the latest renovation of the European Court of Justice).

Visiting the Court is not easy. Not only because of it being located in expensive and relatively isolated Luxembourg, but also because of the heavy, airport-like, security checks. Visits should be booked far in advance, as slots quickly fill up. Once in, however, visiting groups are well tended to and can enjoy a tailor-made programme. Our group attended a hearing, including a spectacular performance by the Advocate-General, and enjoyed a briefing on the case, a tour around the buildings and presentations by a réferendaire and a lawyer linguist. A healthy lunch, including dedicated dining plates, came as an unexpected icing on the legal sightseeing cake. 

Photo 7: The Court room before a hearing. Notice the translators’ offices on the side
Photo 8: Group picture in Grande Salle. Photo courtesy of Amanah Karim
Photo 9: A special lunch plate.

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