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European Union Law

Charlotte O'Brien

European Union (EU) law is a perfect site for asking big socio-legal questions. The origins and organs of law are garishly on display, and explicit legal power dynamics dispense with the myth of objectivity and blast aside fig leaves of rationality. There is something nakedly functional about a legal system to serve ideological ends, and something sociologically compelling about the existential war for the heart of Europe: the market or the polity. Add to this the rapid, contemporary shifts in the law, and we face territory richly fertile for cultivating a range of interdisciplinary approaches, and especially for drawing upon socio-legal theory, materials and learning activities.

And yet ... EU law often manifests in curricula as dry, alienating and, most bizarrely of all, dusty - modules often seem to go through the motions as set down years ago, becoming an unpleasant but necessary rite of passage for students wishing to get qualifying law degrees. Students are expected to trawl through a lot of institutional information - disregarding not only socio-legal, but also legal analytical skills, with an emphasis on description that would not be entertained in a history syllabus at primary school level. While the EU has abandoned its clunky pillars, we still think in terms of three modular pillars - 'institutions', 'principles' and 'substantive law'. And when we get to the law, there is barely room for theoretically questioning some heavy, abstract doctrinalism, because of case-cramming. Because it is all important, we feel we have to teach it all. But it is an entire multi-national legal system, a vast array of subjects, and only one module.

We are, perhaps naturally, dynastically attached to module structures we have encountered ourselves. But the 'traditional' approach to EU was always going to be problematic for us at York Law School (YLS) because core course content is delivered through problem-based learning (PBL). PBL involves students taking charge of their own learning, as a group addressing simulated client cases and identifying key research questions, setting learning objectives and then seeking to meet them in time for a feedback session (Fitzpatrick and Hunter, 2011). We have had to approach EU law in a different way. Excavating the PBL-ability and practical impact of EU law is tied up with thinking about the social influences on and social impact of the EU. Bringing a socio-legal approach to the undergraduate study of EU is thus not a question of simply adding more stuff into an already over-stuffed syllabus; it is about a different way of learning - more thinking, less memorizing - and it is increasingly vital if we want students to gain any meaningful understanding of EU law.

This chapter is a collection as much of colleagues' ideas as of examples in practice. In outlining problems and possibilities, I draw upon the detailed and extremely useful UK Centre for Legal Education (UKCLE) report on the teaching of EU (Ball and Dadamo, 2010). Lots of people are thinking about what to do about EU; the 'teach everything' model inherited down through the years is becoming more clearly unsustainable the larger 'everything' gets. But not many are yet in the position to overhaul it, so I have collected views from academics from a number of institutions[1] as well as York - as a springboard for future discussion, since our general consensus seems to be that we would like to do more to integrate socio-legal approaches. This is not a survey, and so not at all meant to be an example of socio-legal research itself, any more than is your average essay which harvests a number of interesting ideas from better-informed sources. The results are arranged in four sections: first, a 'big picture' sketch - an exploration of whether we are really deciding up-front what we want students to know; second a summary of possible challenges in adopting socio-legal methods; third, a look at the socio-legal potential of EU law due to its inherently interdisciplinary nature and themes, which could replace the subject's three pillars of institutions, principles and law; and fourth, a review of suggestions for different learning activities, and how they might tie to themes and assessment.

Please approach this as a collection of thoughts to feed into the discussion many of us are already having. Hopefully, sharing some experiences from the YLS module might, on some basic level, back up a couple of the preliminary points made in the first section - that it is possible, legitimate, and arguably desirable, to try to lose some of our self-imposed disciplinary shackles. It is, however, a work-in-progress, and not presented as a 'model'.

  • [1] Thanks are due to Jess Guth at Bradford, Dagmar Schiek at Leeds, Samantha Currie atLiverpool and Tammy Hervey at Sheffield.
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