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Juliane Kokott: 'there's no macho atmosphere at the European Court of Justice'

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The German mother-of-six, 50, is a woman of superlatives: as one of three women in an eight-man advocate general team at the ECJ, she most famously helped put Berlusconi on trial

Juliane Kokott is only the third female advocate general in the 50-year-plus history of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), in a role providing the 27 judges of the member states with independent advice. Called to Luxembourg on 7 October 2003 by the German gederal government to replace Siegbert Alber, the dynamic lawyer was not afraid to make public statements about former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian media mogul had altered the national accounting laws to suit his needs. However, he hadn’t reckoned on Kokott. The slender woman at the ECJ showed no hesitation in putting a stop to his plans. He ended up accused of an infringement of EU law.

In one of the most important ECJ rulings, the Manninen case, the judges agreed with Kokott's closing motion when the Finnish stockholder refused to pay double tax on profits from Swedish bonds. Kokott disabused him of this notion, along with stockholders across the continent, leading to hefty back payments. To give you an idea, judges follow the recommendations of the advocate generals in roughly 80% of cases.

Apprentice years

It is a warm autumn day as the diminutive lawyer, for whom Europe signifies cultural diversity and peace, receives us in her office at the ECJ on Plateu de Kirchberg, the area of Luxembourg that houses businesses and government departments. 'I grew up in St. Ingbert, in Saarland, and in Bonn,' the mayor's daughter begins in a quiet voice, sipping her tea. 'It was above all my mother's wish that I study for a degree in law.' She never felt the urge to rebel against her mother’s wishes; it was not as though her parents had groomed her for this path in life. 'Of course, I could have studied something else such as biology. But the educational background was lacking. My school was not science-oriented. The emphasis was on languages.'

Professor Dr. Kokott leans back on the black leather sofa in her large office, describing her legal globetrotting across Bonn, Geneva, Heidelberg, Tunis and Washington D.C. She has received doctorates in both Germany and the USA, and later took on various teaching posts in legal departments in Germany and Switzerland. She likes to tell the international press that her six children arrived quite incidentally. You could say that she is a prime example of a successful career woman and mother. A wunderkind? 'I was not a child prodigy. I believe that some people are more resilient than others. I have also never needed much sleep.'

Pure girl power

However, Kokott's career has not always been as rosy as she would have you believe. As a woman, the young lawyer faced many obstacles. 'When I wanted to qualify as the first female professor of international law at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, my professor at the time was ridiculed. It had never happened before. However, I always had a clear idea of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I have never led myself be led astray.' Hard work, a strong will and organisation have paved the way for this coquettish woman, who doesn't seem to have aged a day. When asked about the source of her motivation, Kokott says, 'I enjoy my work and approach it with a great deal of passion.'

Between Mondays and Thursdays, when she is based in Luxembourg, Kokott faces a 12-hour working day consumed with studying files and attending meetings. She has never wanted to relocate her children and therefore commutes. She juggles her career and children perfectly. 'It is true that more men than women work at the ECJ but I have never experienced a macho atmosphere. The ECJ has always promoted gender equality.' She cannot say why more men work there than women. But on the other hand at the Court of First Instance, with seven out the percentage of women is - - fortunately higher, a figure Kokott believes will increase.

Marathon race: children and career

The ECJ's version of German chancellor Angela Merkel's minister for family and youth, 'Ursula von der Leyen, has never had to choose between children and her career. There have always been ways and means of combining the two. 'The correct environment plays an important role.' On several days Kokott employs students or a cleaning woman. Now that her eldest son is twenty, he is capable to care for his younger brothers and sisters. Her husband, a fellow lawyer, has always supported her, meaning that she has never had to take long-term maternity leave. 'He has never placed any obstacles in my path.'

'Of course all this would not be possible without the help of qualified assistants,' she adds. She knows that it is more difficult for other women who do not have any support. 'The right conditions must exist,' she admits. 'This is why I admire Frau van der Leyen, who has seven children,' she says with a winning smile. 'It is good that she campaigns for the legal right of women to place their children in nurseries.' Obviously Mrs van der Leyen can also employ professionals to look after the children while she works. However, the general attitude is that a mother must be there for her children around the clock has to change. 'Nobody in France would think of saying such a thing. There must be an emotional tie between parents and children, and children must be provided with a secure environment in which to grow up and become independent.'

In Kokott's view, the development of the Lisbon treaty can be likened to the process children go through in becoming autonomous human beings. 'You shouldn’t worry if a decision is not reached immediately. These things don’t always happen quickly. After some deliberation and consolidation the process will continue. You have to think in terms of stages. Besides, the new reform treaty is already being drawn up!' It should be ratified by eighteen EU member states by 2009, after Austria and Slovakia ratified it on 10 April.

Does she have any advice for young people looking to the future? 'Don’t concentrate on your defeats. Listen to your inner voice. Have a clear view of how you want to live and consider whether you would be happy with this life in twenty years time.'

Translated from Juliane Kokott: 'Ich habe hier nie eine Machostimmung verspürt'