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Five Questions with Gábor Halmai

Richard Albert, Boston College Law School

In “Five Questions” here at I-CONnect, we invite a public law scholar to answer five questions about his or her research.

This edition of “Five Questions” features Gábor Halmai, Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law at the European University Institute. His full bio follows below:

Gábor Halmai, professor and chair of Comparative Constitutional Law at the European Univetsity Institute in Florence. His primary research interests are comparative constitutional law, and international human rights. He has published several books and articles, as well as edited volumes on these topics in English, German and Hungarian. His most recent book, ’Perspectives on Global Constitutionalism’ (Eleven International Publishing, 2014) deals with the use of foreign and international law by domestic courts (published by Eleven International Publishing in 2014). He joined the EUI in 2016 after a teaching and research career (at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, at the Princeton University in the US, at the European Masters Program in Human Rights and Democratization in Italy) as well as years of professional career as chief advisor to the President of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, member of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency’s Management Board and numerous other civic activities.

1. Tell us about something you are working on right now.

Currently I am working on a theme related to the constitutional backsliding in East Central Europe from three different angles. The first is about the ways in which these countries managed to unmake liberal constitutionalism with a new constitution, like in Hungary, or without it, like in Poland. The second is the use and misuse of national constitutional identity in this process, and the third is the more theoretical question, whether there is such a thing as popular or illiberal constitutionalism.

2. How and when do you write? Do you have a routine or do you write whenever and wherever you find the time?

My first rector in the mid 1970s back in Hungary, Ivan Berend, who is now professor emeritus at UCLA used to say to young researchers that the routine doesn’t really matter as long as you work 18 hours a day. Since I have always had joy in my family, that is time well consumed, I have never managed to achieve 18 hours a day, so I steal time from my sleeping hours. Putting the half-joke aside, I find it a challenge to write during the teaching burden of the academic year as the topics of my students are taking me to all directions, so I have always tried to find structures research (like fellowships, holidays, sabbatical years) where I can truly focus on my research, and as a result, all my monographs are products of such times.

3. Whose scholarship jumps to the top of your reading list when she or he publishes something new? 

First and foremost the works of my current colleagues at EUI as well as my former colleagues from Princeton, Kim Scheppele and Jan-Werner Müller with whom we continue to debate new ideas and comment on drafts. Naturally, I read everything from András Sajó, my former colleague from Budapest, and from Armin von Bogdandy from Heidelberg. Publications dealing with topics similar to mine, like Andrew Arato, Wojciech Sadurski, Jiri Priban, Bojan Bugaric, and Paul Blokker are always on the top of my list. And honestly, I enjoy reading PhD works in progress, which is my main duty at EUI.

4. Is there an article or book that influenced you as a student and that continues today to be an important reference point for you?

Since I went to the law school in the first half of the 1970s, the most important book for me at that time was René David’s The Major Legal Systems in the World. Obviously, it became outdated by now, but its comparative approach was certainly influential for becoming a comparativist. During Communism in Hungary almost none of the Communist works on the field of public law was worth to read, but I still remember the excellent monograph of Gyula Eörsi on Comparative Private Law.

5. What are some of the big questions ripe for inquiry in your area of research interest?

For someone, like me, who is personally motivated to understand the reasons of the rise and fall of liberal constitutionalism in East Central Europe, as well as the rise of ‘populist constitutionalism’ in some parts of Western Europe, Latin America, and recently in the US, one of the biggest questions is the, ideally. dialectic relationship between constitutional law and constitutional culture. Constitutional law is an inevitable instrument for the political and the legal elite to build up a new state based on the rule of law, but it must be based on a constitutional culture of the non-political and non-judicial actors, most of all the people. My experience in East Central Europe is that if there is no tradition of such a culture, and also the democratic transition has to first solve more important existential questions, and the populist leaders keep the people busy with such issues, constitutional law can not help to form a constitutional culture.

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Published on September 7, 2017
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2 Responses

  1. Bart

    A legal scholar necessarily approaches such complex social issues as ‘constitutional culture’, ‘populism’, repudiation of ‘liberal constitutionalism’, apparent preference for autocracy (at least within a significant portion of society) exclusively from a legal point of view.

    But it is important to remind ourselves that we live in a system of (globalized) capitalism whether we happen to live in Hungary, Poland, China or the US. Consequently such complex social changes might have to do – in significant part at least – with a thing called ‘capital’.

  2. Soraya Beikes

    Referring to question 5 reply I also see constitutional law being used as a political tool for election promises in South Africa where I reside. Whilst having a most transformed constitution the people of SA grapples with access to the enumerated socioeconomic rights. This is underscored by ignorance of these right or inaccess due to poverty which makes it unable for the poor to engage the court when their rights are violated. A key approach is for community interaction by legal scholars to enrich people’s knowledge about their rights. An informed society at least know what their rights are. To assume that the mere fact that there is a constitution means that people know their rights is to assume wrong. Thus to instill a constitutional culture amongst citizens will have to be underpinned by more education to the population at large. That is not just students but also parents that did not necessarily have access to literacy.

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