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“The Einstein Telescope as a legal testing ground for all of Europe”

Loth Van der Auwermeulen is a law researcher at Hasselt University in Belgium. She is studying cross-border legal issues regarding the preparation, construction, and operation of the Einstein Telescope (ET). For the ET project office in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine, she is identifying the legal possibilities for the observatory and whether the project can be a kind of “testing ground” for European cooperation.

Jurist Loth Van der Auwermeulen (Universiteit Hasselt). Beeld: Jonathan Vos Photography
Jurist Loth Van der Auwermeulen (Hasselt University). Image: Jonathan Vos Photography

When I was asked to do a lot of the legal preparations for the project office, I knew hardly anything about the ET. Yes, I’d read somewhere about an issue in the town of Dalhem (Wallonia) with planned wind turbines, for which our Belgian Council of State had voided the permit because of incompatibility with the ET. Pretty typical of a lawyer to be aware of such a specific issue! But now, I’m totally immersed in the ET world and I’m learning every day about all the disciplines involved – how they depend on one another and need to be coordinated. Geology, tunnelling, sustainability, care for the environment, science… It’s all totally fascinating.

Too often, you still see that a lawyer only becomes involved at the very end of a project, and then waves the statute book around and says there’s a legal problem. For a mega-project like the ET, that would obviously be problematic. My role as the youngster in the team is to proactively sound the alarm about potential legal snags and look for solutions. It’s about “classic” legal issues, for example ascertaining who actually has what to say about the soil layer at a depth of 250 metres, where the telescope is going to be installed. The legal differences between the countries involved are a major consideration here. Each country has different rules, which are also the point of departure in the case of cross-border cooperation. From a legal perspective, it’s very interesting to figure out whether we can “decompartmentalise” the different rules of the separate countries or – to put it in other words – apply a single regulatory regime to this cross-border project.

Looking at it through legal eyes, that’s precisely why the ET can play a major role for Europe. The European Union is encouraging cross-border cooperation, but is also still trying to determine how this should be structured legally. A single European regulatory framework supported by all the Member States is still a very long way off. However, regional best practices can provide inspiration for a future European regulatory framework. There are already quite a lot of examples of this within the Benelux, where major legal steps have already been taken as regards cross-border cooperation. And although Germany isn’t actually part of the Benelux, the ties between Germany and the Benelux are strong. Its location in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine therefore makes this project potentially very interesting as a kind of legal “testing ground” for cross-border cooperation in the EU. Something may look like a problem at first, but then be resolved and thus become an opportunity. We aim to become an example of such best practice.

People often think that it’s legal possibilities and impossibilities that determine what happens, but that’s a misconception: a lot is possible legally, but what’s more important in cross-border projects is political and policy support. That’s how it begins. Besides investigating the legal opportunities, I’ll be joining the sustainability task force to look for opportunities in that field as well. My university has plenty of expertise in that area. For me as a lawyer, it’s highly motivating to see how researchers at Hasselt University are boldly dreaming about sustainable solutions for all kinds of applications, such as for the ET, and then are often able to make those dreams come true through their research.

What I personally think is really great about this project is that the ET would actually be built in a peripheral area of the Dutch-Belgian border region, but would make a hugely positive contribution to the whole country. Being able to take part in that gives me an incredible “wow!” feeling.

-Loth Van der Auwermeulen

Loth Van der Auwermeulen (33) will receive her PhD at Hasselt University on 8 November 2023 for her research into the role of administrative law in the case of cross-border interlocal cooperation. Before starting her PhD studies, she worked as an administrative lawyer at the local level. She is the mother of two young children.

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