Deconstructing Central Europe through Law

By Mirosław Michał Sadowski - Posted on 28 November 2023 

Introduction

For many years, Central European legal studies were constructed in comparison with the West, without much introspection into the region itself. A new co-edited publication is attempting to challenge the established discourse, turning inwards as it attempts to define Central Europe as a distinct socio-legal space.

What is Central Europe?

Central Europe is not an easily definable term. The online portal Kafkadesk famously attempted to illustrate all the different conceptualisations of the region on a map; the result includes virtually every European country, with Switzerland, Greece and Italy apparently also considered Central Europe in certain instances.

I recently had the pleasure of co-editing the book Law, Culture and Identity in Central and Eastern Europe: A Comparative Engagement alongside Cosmin Cercel and Alexandra Mercescu (which is coming out later this week). When working on the book, we could also not agree on what Central Europe is; ultimately, the title includes the safer term Central and Eastern Europe – although in one of the chapters I stand by my own definition of the region, delineated on the basis of several factors and as such including 18 countries between Germany and Austria, Greece and Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, and the Baltic Sea. It is from these 18 countries that the almost 30 authors of chapters in the book come from (with a notable exception of Kosovo, in regard to which all attempts at collaboration were unsuccessful as the country’s researchers thought it is too early to speak about its distinct legal culture), attempting to deconstruct and understand the region through law.

The origins

Before moving on to what the book is exactly about, its unorthodox origins need to be first introduced. The idea for this edited collection came following the discussions at the 2016 and 2017 Critical Legal Conferences, held at Kent and Warwick, respectively, which I had the pleasure of holding with another colleague, Rafał Mańko. We realised that our papers (and those of the many colleagues from the CEE region) included comparisons with Western countries, rather than those much closer to us in terms of history, culture, and geography. Most of the questions we received during the two conferences, however, focused on the distinctives, and not the similarity, of Central Europe in regard to the West. As such, the idea was born to deconstruct the region through a legal analysis focusing only on the neighbouring countries.

We soon realised that the typical, encyclopaedic approach would not do the concept justice – as such, another dear colleague and a brilliant comparatist, Alexandra Mercescu, came on board with the idea of putting the different countries of the region in pairs so that the comparative exercise could happen not only in the conclusions and in the mind of the reader but also continuously throughout the book. For this idea to come into fruition, however, another element was needed in addition to the inspiration: time.

This came with the pandemic, which rendered many friends and colleagues in the different countries of the region more amenable to meeting and discussing online – every scholar invited to the project was tasked with preparing a short paper on what they considered the most characteristic trait of the legal identity of their country. Helped in these efforts with the third co-editor, Cosmin Cercel, we could then match the different countries together based on the results of these interventions. This led to a number of original and, if I say so myself, daring pairings, departing from the typical, well-known comparisons between CEE countries and Germany, France or the UK, or between Poland and Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia, or Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

New connections

Instead, Poland was matched with Croatia on the basis of the importance of legal transplants in both legal cultures; Czechia was paired with Hungary on the basis of their still vital Habsburg legacies; Slovakia was put together – perhaps confusingly for some – with Slovenia given the shared impact of the concept of the principle of proportionality on their respective legal orders; Lithuania was teamed up with Moldova on the basis of their minority policies; Latvia was paired with Romania given their distinct constitutional identities; and Estonia was matched with Serbia on the basis of the importance of EU legal influences on the two legal orders. Additionally, Albania was paired with Bulgaria given similar rule of law issues in the two countries, and Bosnia was put together with Montenegro on the basis of the two countries’ similar (but distinct) historical paths, bringing the number of analysed countries to 16 (ultiamtely, colleagues from North Macedonia opted to write a theoretical chapter).

Importantly, this practical part is supplemented by a theoretical part, which sheds more general light on the different aspects of both the comparative exercise and the region. For example, Pierre Legrand sheds light on the arcane knowledge of comparative law, Momchil Milanov links the literature and legal souls of the region, and Péter Cserne, Donatas Murauskas and Manuel Guțan each dig deeper into the more general traits of the region’s legal identity, exploring judicial formalism, compliance with (or rather, lack thereof) ECtHR judgments, and historical impact on CEE constitutions, respectively.

Do all 15 chapters answer the question of whether Central and Eastern Europe as a region has a distinct legal identity? As editors, ourselves divided on the issue, we decided to leave this question open to the reader, who can contemplate it when reading this volume, covered with a pattern found in many corners of the region.

 

Law, Culture and Identity in Central and Eastern Europe. A Comparative Engagement (Oxon: Routledge, 2024) is out 1 December. The Andersonian Library of the University of Strathclyde is hosting a launch event for the book at noon (BST) in Seminar room 5.17 and on Zoom. For a Zoom link, please get in touch with Mirosław M. Sadowski at miroslaw.sadowski@strath.ac.uk.

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