Koen Lenaerts is the man at the center of every tricky legal issue in the European Union. As president of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Belgian law professor hears only a limited number of cases himself. Yet he’s the EU’s symbolic referee at a time when the court is in the spotlight on everything from migration to the rule of law in Hungary and Poland to antitrust disputes involving tech giants like Google and Facebook. That’s not to mention the court’s usual load of antitrust, trademark and tax cases, covering everything from Halloumi cheese and Louboutin high heels to Facebook’s data policies, Fiat cars and iPhones.
Lenaerts’ office doesn’t weigh in on every ruling, but it assigns cases to specific teams, and he has the overall responsibility to make sure the court does its work efficiently. These days, however, it’s the court itself that’s on trial, with national judges calling its authority into question. In 2020, the German Constitutional Court challenged one of its rulings on the European Central Bank, undermining the primacy of EU law. No sooner was that papered over did Poland’s top tribunal simply declare the Polish constitution supreme over EU law, including rulings by Lenaerts’ court.
Even as those debates play out in the EU’s political sphere, the court is being called upon to adjudicate a series of disputes between Brussels and countries such as Hungary and Poland, over the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Lenaerts — an avowed Europhile with six daughters and an emphatic interest in all aspects of Europe’s legal code — has already issued his own carefully worded warnings. “You can’t be a member of the European Union if you don’t have independent, impartial courts operating in accordance with fair trial rule, upholding Union law,” he told an audience at Warsaw University late last year.