Gábor Halmai Interview

Gábor Halmai is Professor of Law at the Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest, Hungary) and has spent the past four years in Princeton, New Jersey, at Princeton University and the Center of Theological Inquiry. Professor Halmai has taught constitutional law and human rights since 1976 and has been a distinguished scholar of the field. In the academic year 2015-2016 he will be a fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaft der Menschen (IWM) in Vienna, and in September 2016 he will be appointed to the chair of constitutional law and public law at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Joshua Mauldin: In fall 2016 you will be appointed to a chair in constitutional law at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Can you say more about what your areas of teaching and research will be at the EUI?

Gábor Halmai: After a long selection process I just got the offer for a five year contract, renewable for a further three years in the Chair of Constitutional Law, with a special emphasis on comparative, transnational and international dimensions. EUI is reserved for post-graduate studies, and I’ll have doctoral students on these topics from all over Europe. My planned research project aims to detect and define the core of constitutional democracy in the Member States of the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe (CoE). The central research question of the project is: what are the elements of constitutional democracy, based on the different requirements for the Member States of the EU and the members of the CoE, and how constitutional principles are applied by member states, valued by the public and protected by the European institutions.

JM: In the upcoming academic year of 2015-16 you will be at the Institute for Human Sciences (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, IWM) in Vienna. What will be your focus of research for this project?

GH: My research there deals with the transformation of a liberal constitutional system to an illiberal one from both an empirical and a normative/theoretical perspective. The empirical study puts my home country, Hungary in the center of examination in a broader framework of constitutional democracy theory, and is thus relevant in legal and political sciences as well as contemporary history. The issue at hand is actual as it examines the constitutional backsliding that has taken place since 2010, right before I left the country first for Heidelberg, Germany and then for the last four years for Princeton, but relevance of the topic goes beyond the concrete case of Hungary to issues related to transition and democracy, especially in the Central and East European region.

JM: Our Inquiry on Law and Religious Freedom concluded at the end of May, so this would be a good time to reflect on the year as a whole. How did you find the intellectual atmosphere at CTI?

GH: The intellectual atmosphere of this joint interdisciplinary research was challenging, but extremely enjoyable and stimulating. I had the opportunity to do research on two topics I had always wanted to explore, but had never had the opportunity. Throughout my career I dealt with different fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, right to life and human dignity, freedom of information, and so on, but this year I could study freedom of religion more closely. I was also eager to study Israel with its many religious and constitutional identities. Therefore I designed a two-step project for the academic year at CTI. In the first semester I dealt with the practice of religious freedom in countries representing distinct constitutional models of state-church relations from both a normative/theoretical and also an empirical perspective. In the normative part I examined the characteristics of liberal versus illiberal constitutionalism, with a special focus on different models of state-religion relationships, while in the empirical part I compared different national constitutional regulations on religious rights to identify how much religious freedom is provided in the different countries belonging to distinct models of state-church relationship.

JM: What I find especially interesting about your work is the comparative aspect, in which you analyze several different constitutional systems.

GM: Yes, to highlight the theoretical challenges via concrete cases I selected three countries: Egypt (a country that between 2011 and 2013 started to build up a democratic system with and illiberal theocratic constitutionalism); Hungary (which became a liberal democracy after 1989-90, but since 2010 has been backsliding into an illiberal constitutional system, while still having a liberal separationist approach in its constitution); and Israel (a liberal democracy without a constitution, with a very special accommodationist model). In the second semester I concentrated on the question of how the State of Israel deals with the legal pluralism constituted by various religious groups regarding status rights. Law and religion are two competing cultural systems that constitute individual and collective identities, as well as social interaction. In the history of Israel—a religiously as well as ethnically deeply divided society—various individual and collective religious and national identities have developed. These issues are reflected in constitutional regulations, as well as in the different legal systems of the country, existing parallel to each other.

JM: How will your time at CTI influence your research and teaching in the coming years?

GH: If I have time during the summer and in the coming academic year, I would like to try to combine and extend the theoretical and the empirical part of my research on religious freedom in the form of a small monograph. Freedom of religion will certainly be one of the topics I would like to teach and supervise for dissertations in Florence.

JM: I’m particularly interested in how you as a constitutional lawyer found the dialogue between law and theology. Did anything surprise you about this interdisciplinary conversation?

GH: I believe that the dialogue between legal scholars and theologians was very fruitful. I certainly learned a lot from the theologians, and also from lawyers in other legal disciplines, such as international law and canon law.

JM: CTI aims to be an interdisciplinary research center where theology and other disciplines address global concerns. Your work in comparative constitutionalism leads you to think a lot about the political systems of various countries, whether your native Hungary, Israel, Germany, Egypt, and so on. How did you develop this interest in comparative constitutionalism?

GH: In my latest book published last year and written during my previous years in Princeton I dealt extensively with the possibilities of global constitutionalism through the internationalization of domestic constitutional law both within and outside Europe. I examined the use of foreign and international law in constitution making and constitutional interpretation and also examined the challenges of constitutionalism all over the word. Hence I had to admit that besides the convergence towards global constitutionalism, there is also a divergence from these values. These challenges and divergences apply also to freedom of religion. Therefore besides the traditional forms of Western liberal democracy, with its strict separationist model of the state-religion relationship, we have to consider other approaches, and recognize that religious freedom is possible in different models. On the other hand, as my home country of Hungary demonstrates, the formal separation of church and state in the text of the constitution does not necessarily guarantee freedom of religion.

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