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'European law has changed a lot for women'

Sacha Prechal, judge at the European Court of Justice
Sacha Prechal
Sacha Prechal

Text: Ellis Ellenbroek, translation: UVC

Sacha Prechal (b. 1959) wanted to be an interpreter and to build bridges between people. She initially went to study law as the basis for an interpreter training course, but since remained loyal to the legal world. After a couple of professorial appointments, Prechal ended up in the Court of Justice of the European Union, where she has been a judge since 2010.

Good evening Ms Prechal. With what place on earth am I presently digitally connected?
‘Luxembourg. The Court of Justice of the European Union is seated in Luxembourg. We have a rental here, only 10 minutes away from where I work. The house has a lot of greenery surrounding it and little lambs in the garden. They are the landlord’s lambs and we look after them a bit. A few years back, one of them got stuck in a fence. It was crying its eyes out, really sad. There’s a ram in the herd that can be very aggressive, so I decided to call the landlord.’

You came to the Netherlands in 1968. Did that have something to do with the Prague Spring that was quashed by Russia?
‘My father was a cellist. He had been in the Frysk Orkest [Frisian Orchestra] in Leeuwarden since 1967. Eastern European string players were very popular with orchestras in the Northern Netherlands at the time. My father was going to work abroad for a couple of years and then come back. In 1968, we were staying with him on holiday when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia. That’s why we stayed in the Netherlands. My mother and I went back briefly to pick up my one-year-old brother, who was at my grandma’s.’

You were nine years old. How did you feel about this sudden emigration?
'Actually quite excited. As a child, you adapt so quickly. But I did find it a pity that I couldn’t see my friends anymore. I didn’t have any political awareness yet, of course. I understood what was happening from my parents and from the television but it wasn’t until later that I realized the impact of it all.
I had to learn Dutch, which I succeeded in quite well. The only thing I still can’t really get the hang of are proverbials and sayings. Whenever we had a test about that at the gymnasium [pre-university education], I would just copy the answers from the girl sitting next to me.’

Where did your desire to study law stem from?
‘That was purely a coincidence. I wanted to do something with language after secondary school. I spoke Czech, a little bit of Russian, and I really liked French. It was on my mind to become an interpreter. I thought it would be fun to be able to build bridges between people. I was told that if I wanted to go to an interpreters’ school, I first needed to have a candidate’s diploma from an academic degree programme. The preferred programme was Law because, they said, most interpreters would end up working for the European Community.
Once I started my Law degree, I became deeply invested in it. The topic of human rights appealed to me, as well as the role played by legislature in protecting civilians against the government or the exercising of power in general. The events in my own country of Czechoslovakia also fostered my interest in the legal field.’

What does a judge at the European Court actually do?
‘The Court of Justice of the European Union issues verdicts on disputes between member states, EU institutions, companies, and individuals. These disputes can be about anything. European law touches on all the different fields of law, which is exactly what makes it so interesting. Consumer protection, protection of privacy, the threat to the independence of judges in Poland, European arrest warrants. At the moment, the discrimination of women in terms of social security in Spain is on my plate.’

Each of the 27 member states only has one judge in the Court. How did you end up in this position?
‘There was an ad in the Dutch newspaper NRC. I was a professor in Utrecht and had just brought in some funding for research but my husband said: "You should write to them. If you don’t, you will regret it for the rest of your life." So I wrote, and one thing led to another.
When the Minister of Justice called to say: "Ms Prechal, we are going to nominate you", my husband said: "Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen!" It did shock him a little bit. This appointment pretty much turned our lives upside down, of course because I would be living in Luxembourg for the majority of the time. He was working in The Hague.
However, even if I hadn’t applied, they would probably have approached me. For these kinds of recruitments, they ask around. There will have been people who mentioned me as a potential candidate to the selection committee.’

Who are the people that have been decisive for your development?
‘My grandmother and my mother. My grandmother was a fairly independent and quite rebellious woman. I spent a lot of time with her when I was little. My mother was a doctor who wanted to practise her profession in the Netherlands as well. That was by no means a matter of fact for a woman with small children, especially not in Leeuwarden. Still, she persevered.
Other than that, I have learned a lot from my two bosses at the Court of Justice, Thijmen Koopmans, who unfortunately passed away, and Jos Kapteyn. They taught me all the professional skills.’

Your father was a cellist. Have you inherited some of his musicality?
‘I’m fairly musical. I used to play the violin but I gave that up because I also competed in modern rhythmic gymnastics, which also involved music. The gymnastics group Quick Leeuwarden that I was a part of was the national champion for years in a row, which was amazing.’

Your husband , Alex Brenninkmeijer, also studied Law in Groningen, just like you. Is that where you met?*
‘No, it isn’t. He is eight years older than me. He was one of the editors of the Dutch legal magazine Nederlands Juristenblad that I wrote for. We met each other at a conference in Utrecht. He had just been appointed professor at the University of Amsterdam. We agreed to go for a drink together. That’s how it goes, isn’t it? Very boring. Other than that, we’re not boring, mind you.

No?
’We spend quite a lot of time in the mountains. We have a cottage in the French Alps and enjoy doing work on it, renovating it, and working in the garden. And when we were in Luxembourg during the lockdown, we also discovered canoeing.

A European judge is appointed for a six-year term. You first finished the term of your predecessor and are now in your second term, which will end next year. What are your plans for after that?
‘I don’t aspire to do a third term. I enjoy my job very much but the workload is extraordinarily high. I want to have more time for academic activities and more leisure time. I would like to work with small groups of students at Utrecht University. And I would like to produce a third edition of my thesis on directives, a kind of European legislation with a lot of impact on national law. At the time, it was published by Oxford University Press. In 2005, I produced a second edition and the publisher has been asking me about a third edition for a long time but, with my work here, that was simply not doable.’

From 1992 to 2007, you were the coordinator of the network of experts in the area of equal treatment of men and women of the European Community, and thereafter you have been a member of the executive committee European Network of Legal Experts in the field of Gender Equality. Where do we stand in terms of female emancipation?
‘European law has changed a lot for women. For example, directives have been established that prescribe equal treatment in the workplace in the EU member states. Women should receive the same pension as men, equal salary for work of equal value, and discrimination is no longer allowed in the appointment process. Parental leave has been introduced. Every country also has its own issues, though. What strikes me in the Netherlands is the part-time culture. Everyone should be able to decide for themselves and make their own choices but, at the present moment, you will not be able to get ahead in your career if you have a part-time job.’

Have you ever had a ‘‘me too" experience?
Only once. It wasn’t very serious. I was at an international conference, I was 24. I was sat at a table next to a professor from a different country. We had a delightful conversation until he started stroking my knees. It gave me a shock. I am not shy but I really didn’t know how to respond and was slightly panicking. I then shoved my chair all the way to the man on the other side of me. That really startled him, of course, and he asked me what I was doing. That man, an English man, later also became an employee in Luxembourg like me. This incident has since come up a lot and we laughed about it a great deal.'

The University of Groningen considers you a remarkable alumna, a role model. How do you see yourself?
’I think it’s a good quality for a judge to be a bit modest. I find the idea of role models a little bit scary. I can understand that I have shown other women how far you can come while remaining a fairly normal person. I think I’ve remained fairly normal.’

It has been an honour to speak to someone of your stature!
‘I’m only 1 metre 60, though.’

Sacha Prechal

Alexandra (Sacha) Prechal (Prague, 1959) came to the Netherlands in 1968. After finishing her pre-university education at the Stedelijk Gymnasium in Leeuwarden, she studied Law in Groningen. She graduated in 1983 and obtained her doctorate in 1995 from the University of Amsterdam, where she was affiliated with the Europe Institute at the time. Between graduating and obtaining her doctorate, Prechal worked as an assistant professor of European Law in Maastricht and as Cabinet officer of the Dutch judge in the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. Before Prechal was appointed judge at the European Court of Justice in 2010, she was Professor of European Law in Tilburg and Utrecht. She still has a zero-hour contract in Utrecht. Prechal is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). In 2013, she received an honorary doctorate from the Tilburg Law School.

* Shortly after this interview, on April 14, came the sad news of the totally unexpected death of Sacha Prechal's husband, UG law alumnus, Alex Brenninkmeijer (1951-2022), former National Ombudsperson and member of the European Court of Auditors.

Last modified:17 May 2022 12.34 p.m.
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