Germany's Constitutional Court President The Man Who Holds Europe's Destiny in His Hands
On Wednesday, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court will deliver a keenly awaited ruling on the permanent euro bailout fund. If they rule against it, the markets could crash. The man who will decide over Europe's future may look youthful and friendly, but he is a tough political operator.
There aren't many people who have been offered the position of president of Germany and turned the offer down. Andreas Vosskuhle is one of them.
Protocol dictates that the president of the Federal Constitutional Court is the fifth in Germany's chain of command, yet Vosskuhle wasn't interested in swapping his current job for the position of German president, the top position according to protocol. Those who know him were probably not surprised. Vosskuhle finds "all the representational duties tedious," he admitted in a one-on-one conversation at the start of this year, when Christian Wulff was still Germany's president. "I'm happiest at my desk," Vosskuhle said, "or in deliberation with the Senate."
Still, Chancellor Angela Merkel took the risk and offered Vosskuhle the opportunity to succeed Wulff, after the president's resignation this February. The candidate asked for a day to think it over. Then he declined.
Yet despite forgoing the offer to be Germany's president, Vosskuhle is in the spotlight these days more than any Constitutional Court president before him. The German monthly political magazine Cicero drew him as a superhero of democracy, the eagle that is Germany's emblem emblazoned across a muscular chest. The London-based Financial Times ran a picture of Vosskuhle in his red robe, under the headline "Germany's judgment day."
Not only the public and media within Germany and Europe, but also traders on New York's Wall Street and politicians -- even including US President Barack Obama -- are waiting to hear what the president of the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe will announce at 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
Spectators in the courtroom in Karlsruhe on Wednesday will see Vosskuhle in his scarlet robe and matching hat. He will rise from his seat on the judges' bench -- the fourth chair from the right -- and in his usual tone, firm yet not loud, he will read out the judges' verdict. There is no question it will be a historic one.
The judges of the Second Senate, which makes up one half of the Constitutional Court, are deliberating, in expedited proceedings, whether or not to impose a temporary injunction against Germany ratifying the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and the so-called fiscal pact. If the judges block Germany's participation in the ESM, even if just temporarily, it could send the euro into a tailspin. A new program to buy sovereign bonds, announced by the European Central Bank (ECB) last week, would also suddenly be of less value, since the program is supposed to be coupled with the ESM.
Far more likely is that the Constitutional Court will rule in the other direction, but this too comes with its own consequences. By approving the stability mechanism, even under strict conditions, the judges could be spelling the end of the Federal Republic of Germany as a self-determined state. If these treaties are ratified, Germany will be bound to them, caught in a system of liability that could sooner or later lead to a Europe-wide political union.
Seen from this point of view, nothing less than the future of Europe and the continued existence of Germany are riding on the words which Vosskuhle will utter on Wednesday. The Federal Constitutional Court runs according to the "power of eight," in the words of Jutta Limbach, one of Vosskuhle's predecessors, describing the eight judges who sit on each of the court's two senates. The president's vote on a verdict carries no more weight than those of a senate's other seven members. Still, the president has an elevated role, both externally and internally. And Vosskuhle is aware of that power, as unpretentious as he may often appear.
An Attentive Partner
It is late afternoon on a day in early July. It's almost unbearably humid outside, and inside as well. Vosskuhle's office doesn't have air conditioning. The president of the Federal Constitutional Court is wearing a blue shirt and a tie, and invites his visitor to take off his jacket as well. Vosskuhle is 1.95 meters (6 feet 5 inches) tall, so he often has to bend down to talk to people. That combined with his frequent smiles is generally enough to make him seem an attentive conversation partner.
In his public appearances, he values his presidential status -- in printed interviews, he is supposed to be addressed not as "Mr. Vosskuhle," but as "Mr. President." Yet in person, Vosskuhle is unconcerned with such formalities, interacting openly and speaking plainly. But he doesn't want to see such plain-speaking statements published.
The presidential office is a simple one, with a black desk flanked by filing cabinets on one side and a suite of black leather chairs on the other. Along one wall is the sofa where the president sometimes takes an afternoon nap, when time allows. The office offers little in the way of distraction from work. Even the photograph on the windowsill shows not Vosskuhle's wife, the vice president of a regional court in Germany, but his research assistants.
Vosskuhle is tired of hearing himself described as chubby-cheeked and boyish in appearance, but even the gray hair he's acquired since taking on the Constitutional Court presidency can't alter the fact that the 48-year-old utterly lacks the air of an elderly statesman. It's easy to underestimate how determined, even tough, this man with the friendly smile can be.
Chancellor Merkel discovered as much in late June. The plan was to hurry the laws approving the ESM and the fiscal pact through the Bundestag and Bundesrat, the two houses of the German parliament. The chancellor wanted to send a "strong signal" to the rest of Europe the following Sunday, July 1, and the government expected German President Joachim Gauck to "sign both laws promptly."
But Berlin hadn't counted on Vosskuhle. Urgent petitions had been filed against the laws with the Constitutional Court, in a bid to get a temporary injunction against the ESM. In that situation, the federal president normally waits before signing the laws, so as not to present the judges in Karlsruhe with a fait accompli. When the Constitutional Court judge responsible for the case asked Gauck's deputy, the day before the vote, whether Gauck would wait this time as well, the official answered that he would have to check with his boss.
That gave Vosskuhle the impression that the federal president's office was hesitating, so Vosskuhle increased pressure from his side. His spokesperson announced, "We are acting on the assumption that the federal president will accommodate this request, as has been done in the past, and allow the court sufficient time to examine the matter." Gauck's office was left with little choice but to announce immediately that of course the president would wait to sign the laws.
The government was irritated, but Vosskuhle had achieved his goal and made his position clear. He had also demonstrated a considerably higher degree of political skill than his professional history would suggest.
- Part 1: The Man Who Holds Europe's Destiny in His Hands
- Part 2: A Love of Abstract Art and Tom Waits