Independent and free thanks in part to Veni


Independent and free thanks in part to Veni

Youngest professor in Leiden investigates harmonisation of European criminal law

‘Without that Veni grant, I would never have been able to delve into my subject so deeply. During the first two months, I only read articles and other professional literature. A dream, I would skip home afterwards.’

Jannemieke OuwerkerkJannemieke Ouwerkerk. Photo: Tilburg University

Jannemieke Ouwerkerk (35) is the youngest professor at Leiden University. She is at present probably the youngest in the Netherlands. On 1 January 2015, Ouwerkerk's Veni project entitled ‘Symbol or substance? Towards a systematic application of criminalisation criteria in EU Law’ started and 19 months later, she had obtained her professorship in European Criminal Law. A lot of hard work preceded that, however. ‘A professorship is not only a crowning of one’s work. At my age, it is mainly the beginning of a talented career. At least, that is how I see it. It is the start of a journey in which I hope to be able to supervise a large number of PhD students.’

Jannemieke Ouwerkerk's office is in the imposing Kamerlingh Onnesgebouw on the Steenschuur, a street that forms the extension of the magical bend of the Rapenburg. There is a kettle in the windowsill to boil water for tea. By having this she breaks the house rules, she smirks. However, it does save a long walk to the pantry every time. Every bit of convenience helps, and that is no less true for a lawyer.

A ‘respectable’ student

At the start of this century, Ouwerkerk was a 'respectable' law student at Utrecht University. During her third year, she became a student assistant at the Willem Pompe Institute. ‘That is when the university really came to life for me. I developed a deep interest for the subject as well as for political awareness. How did you notice that? I got genuinely angry about proposed legislation in the Dutch House of Representatives that did not make the slightest bit of sense, for example!’

Writing papers was something she excelled in. Examining, assessing, analysing and describing problems from all different perspectives. And though her heart was already in criminal law, an internship at an attorney's office, therefore her baptism of fire in legal practice, failed to inspire her. It was too much rushing about and too one-sided. She eventually graduated in 2006, but the obvious career for her discipline, that is one in legal practice, simply did not attract her. A PhD position at Tilburg University at the Department of Criminal Law provided the necessary solace and the move south was immediate and wholehearted.

‘It was absolutely fantastic and I was good at it. I am disciplined, which is something one needs during research. So I received my doctorate just over four years. That was in 2011. I thought to myself: I will probably have to enter legal practice or work for the judiciary. So I was surprised when Tilburg asked: will you stay on as an associate professor?’

Small nudges in the right direction

In Tilburg, Ouwerkerk did research for some of the time and taught as well. ‘My former PhD supervisor there and the department chair prepared me for the professorship. I can say that without a shadow of doubt. And they did that without me really noticing it: they did it very subtly, with small nudges in the right direction. When I was appointed as an associate professor, they encouraged me to follow a course in academic leadership, for example. They saw my potential while it was still germinating.’

One should be pleasant and willing to concede things to others. Also in science
- Jannemieke Ouwerkerk

Step-by-step, Ouwerkerk did realise what kind of researcher she was becoming. ‘Let's put it this way: it is not just about the number of publications and their quality and length. One should also be pleasant and willing to concede things to others. There is certainly no lack of rivalry among researchers. “You're so lucky, everything always comes easily to you,” is the sort of comment I have occasionally heard. That is certainly not the case. People only see the successes, rarely the setbacks and doubts. I've learned that doing things together is far more pleasant than competing with each other.’

The day after her Veni grant interview, her appointment to associate professor was announced. ‘On 17 July 2014, the day of the MH17 aircraft disaster, I was informed that I had been awarded the Veni grant. Such a dark day and yet I felt on top of the world. It was confrontational and dramatic coincidence that I will never forget. Such a period, in which your emotions are all over the place, certainly brings you back to earth with both feet on the ground.’

Did you know? The 'Stichting Mens en Strafrecht' offers an alternative to the tough and repressive language of politics, media and citizens about crime and punishment. Ouwerkerk wants to inform the general public about the reality and complexity of criminal law and crime, and raise awareness of the consequences of more and heavier criminal law.

Colourful stories

There is no lack of colourful stories about how NWO assesses the proposals, thinks Ouwerkerk. ‘NWO is said to find interdisciplinarity particularly important and you won’t get anywhere without an enormous publication list, is what you hear. Well, my experience is different. My proposal is exactly what I wanted to investigate. I did not dilute it at all or come up with any gimmicks to connect with other disciplines. If my proposal had not been awarded the grant, then I would have been at peace with it. I knew that my publication list was not particularly “ideal” in some aspects. For example, as a member of the Meijers Committee (a prestigious Standing Committee of Experts on International Immigration, Refugee and Criminal Law – ed.) I regularly wrote advisory reports, without my name being mentioned, of course. Formally, that does not carry any weight, but I nevertheless found it important to do. I had also established the Stichting Mens en Strafrecht [People and Criminal Law Foundation] that cost me a lot of time – and still does – and that obviously meant less time available for writing articles. However, all of that was mentioned in the assessment report and it was valued! The people at NWO are certainly not blind to such things.’

In the Veni assessment report, Ouwerkerk's presentation is described with the qualifications ‘clear and sparkling’. We have no trouble believing that, because once she starts talking about the discipline, Ouwerkerk beams. The Lisbon Treaty that dates from 2007, she says, that all EU Member States ratified in 2009 – through which the legal basis for the European Union was formed via a series of amendments and the treaties of Rome and Maastricht – contains extensive powers for legislation about criminal law collaboration and the harmonisation of national criminal law.

The route to harmonisation

‘With respect to the deportation of persons, market abuses or a wide range of sanction levels, harmonisation is particularly important,’ she explains, while the kettle in the windowsill is switched on again to prepare another cup of tea. ‘But just how far should the EU be allowed to go in this? To give but one example: should the EU be able to determine that perpetrators of child abuse receive a given minimum prison sentence? Dutch law does not have any minimum sentence for this offence. How should one tackle that? My research covers the route to harmonisation, a single legal framework. Which powers does the EU have and which powers should it have. And, if it already has them, how should they be applied. This is what it comes down to, in brief.’ Yet, some fundamental questions need to be answered first: when should the EU become involved in penalisation and in which cases should it remain a national issue?

Full circle

After some encouragement, Ouwerkerk is prepared to briefly say something about the male-female ratio for professorships, although she would clearly prefer not to. ‘The gender thing is not interesting in the story of who I am and what I consider to be important. If I were a man, the question would not have come up. So why ask a woman? Fortunately for me, I have never had the idea that I have been disadvantaged or prejudiced because I am a woman. I have always felt that I have been judged according to my ability.’

Besides her research, Jannemieke Ouwerkerk is also a substitute judge in her free time. ‘I want to keep in touch with legal practice,’ she explains. She has now even been made a member of the Veni assessment committee. It therefore seems to be full circle in this case.

Meanwhile, she is devoting a lot of attention to the organisation of the third Criminal Congress ‘Strafrecht en stoornis’ (Criminal law and dysfunction) that will be held on 1 June 2017 in Utrecht and is hosted by 'her' Stichting Mens en Strafrecht. We will certainly be hearing more from Jannemieke Ouwerkerk in the future ... at the very least on Friday 7 April, when at 16.00 in the venerable Academy building on the Rapenburg in Leiden she will give her inaugural lecture entitled: Herijking van Uniestrafrecht. Over grondslagen voor strafrechtelijke regelgeving in de Europese Unie. (Recalibrating EU criminal law. On the foundations for criminal legislation in the European Union.)