The FernUniversität in Hagen and the University of Wroclaw in collaboration with the rest of EDELNet partners organised the Hybrid Conference on European Law and Cultural Diversity in Wroclaw (Poland) on 22-24 November 2023. The conference is the kick-off event for the constitution of a network of researchers and the development of a collective research collaboration within the EDELNet partnership. Coordinated by Dr. Juan J Garcia Blesa, the research project that lies at the heart of this collaboration will explore new avenues of interdisciplinary cooperation between the areas of legal studies and intercultural research.
The notion that cultural differences have a significant impact on the way the Rule of Law is understood across countries, and that such differences should be taken into due account when evaluating the ways in which it is practiced, has been long acknowledged by key international institutions. The United Nations General Assembly, for instance, “while also recognizing that there are common features founded on international norms and standards,” calls in its Resolution 69/123, on The Rule of Law at the National and International Levels, “for dialogue to be enhanced among all stakeholders with a view to placing national perspectives at the centre of rule of law assistance in order to strengthen national ownership, while recognizing that rule of law activities must be anchored in a national context and that States have different national experiences in the development of their systems of the rule of law, taking into account their legal, political, socioeconomic, cultural, religious and other local specificities.”
The calls for further research and the international debate in general, however, have been so far limited to the differences between the “West” and the rest of the World. Thus, for example, the International Law Association in its 2018 Conference reminds that “[w]hilst there is often presumed to be a universal conception of what is just, fair, or good, there is the need to be more cognizant of specific local, cultural and social factors which may contribute to different notions of the rule of law than that accustomed in Western societies.” That is, as far as the Rule of Law debate goes, there seems to be at least at the practical level a general assumption that the “West” is a more or less monolithic cultural unit whose internal diversity has little importance and deserves little attention in terms of the way the Rule of Law is understood and practiced across countries as diverse as, e.g., Greece, Lithuania, the Netherlands or Canada.
This one-size-fits-all approach also dominates the European debate, where it is commonly assumed that there is one relatively homogeneous cultural understanding and experience of (legal) notions as fundamental to the Rule of Law and as deeply conditioned by culture as those of “(un)certainty,” “participation” or “to be heard.” Although academic and institutional work often acknowledges the diversity of cultural views about the Rule of Law that exists in Europe, this insight is usually brushed aside by standard references to the consensus among European institutions and a part of the academic community. Yet, even if such assumptions about the general consensus were correct, the increasing tensions across the EU and its MS about the Rule of Law debate suggest that further research is needed. The question becomes even more pressing if we acknowledge that, while differences across national cultures are important, no nation is culturally homogenous due to the presence of different ethnic groups and cultural minorities, especially if the perspectives of migrant citizens and non-citizen residents are taken into account as well.
From the perspective of cultural diversity, the Rule of Law debate is only one manifestation of the broader importance of taking cultural nuance into account when approaching cross-national legal debates. With that in mind, this conference sets out to revisit the meaning and scope of European cultural differences in relation to a variety of cross-national legal debates, and explore whether and to what extent the insights developed in the area of multi-cultural research can help facilitate a more nuanced and deeper mutual understanding in European legal relations. The initiative, however, is far from a call to total cultural relativism and acknowledges that some basic limits to the use of cultural diversity in relation to European legal relations must be clearly set, including but not limited to the absolute prohibitions of torture, racism or gender discrimination. Although these limits are usually linked to large lists of human rights, these are strongly dependent upon the interpretation of their meanings, scopes, and practices and should be also examined to a certain extent through the lens of cultural diversity.
Within such broad limits, the conference aims to explore with an open mind the possibilities of applying the insights and tools of intercultural studies regarding European cultural differences (and similarities) to deepen our understanding of key European legal debates and the operation of common legal regimes. To that end, this attempt at cross-disciplinary pollination brings together in five streams contributions from the areas of legal and multi-cultural research.
The first stream opens the conference by looking at cultural research coming from fields like social and community psychology or anthropology and its possible connections to different legal methodologies and approaches to legal research (comparative law, legal sociology, etc.). This stream aims to explore structured ways to bring together the insights of cultural research and legal studies in the hope that this may help lawyers and legal academics approach in more meaningful ways the crucial challenge of cross-European cultural difference and its impact on European legal governance.
The rest of the conference features four streams that will discuss a variety of legal issues placed at the intersection between European law and cultural differences where legal debates call for a deeper understanding of the European cross-cultural component.