Photo Gallery: Deciding on Europe's Future

Foto: David Klein / Bundesverfassungsgericht

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.

Historic Verdict

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.

Increasing Pressure

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.

A Love of Abstract Art and Tom Waits

Vosskuhle grew up in the small western German city of Detmold, where his father was a lawyer specializing in administrative law. Vosskuhle studied in Bayreuth and Munich, and briefly worked for the Interior Ministry of the federal state of Bavaria after qualifying as a lawyer. He achieved the requirements to become a professor at the age of just 34, with a thesis on environmental and planning law, and was appointed a full professor at Freiburg University a year later. In 2007, the university elected him its head, making him the youngest person to hold that position in the university's history.

It was a meteoric career and a rapid rise through the ranks of academia. But even more impressive was when, just two weeks after his appointment to the Federal Constitutional Court, Vosskuhle was also elected vice president of that body, an institution which commands respect in Germany like no other. That made Vosskuhle the youngest ever chair of a Constitutional Court senate and the designated successor to Hans-Jürgen Papier, the then-president of the court.

Explaining the World

Originally, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) had constitutional lawyer Horst Dreier in mind to succeed Vosskuhle's predecessor, Constitutional Court Vice President Winfried Hassemer. But the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) blocked that nomination, in part because Dreier supports pre-implantation screening, which in the eyes of the conservative CDU amounts to insufficient regard for protecting unborn life. After weeks of stalemate, the SPD found a compromise solution in the young, non-partisan Vosskuhle, who had the additional advantage that he was either prudent enough or simply neutral enough not to have made any controversial statements that could be held against him.

Vosskuhle likes to be inconspicuous. He continues to spend his vacations in the south of France, visiting old friends. When he isn't being chauffeured around in his official car, he drives a 14-year-old Saab convertible. He enjoys abstract art, and music from Puccini and Bach to Miles Davis and Tom Waits. His favorite reading material consists of classics: Stendhal, Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, writers who he says are "like old friends, interpreting and explaining the world."

Interpreting and explaining the world -- that's something Vosskuhle himself did in his days as a professor. As a constitutional judge, however, he also helps shape the world. In practice, the Basic Law, Germany's constitution, "applies as the Federal Constitutional Court interprets it," in the words of constitutional lawyer Rudolf Smend.

The idea that a plausible, well-founded and reasonable opinion might suddenly be labeled "unconstitutional" following a ruling from Karlsruhe can be a difficult pill for some politicians to swallow. Since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany, the government has sometimes viewed the Constitutional Court as a nuisance, a body capable of nullifying its arduously negotiated laws with the stroke of a pen. After Vosskuhle's senate ruled on the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, setting clear limits on European integration and requiring greater participation from the Bundestag, some CDU politicians initially wanted to block Vosskuhle's election as Constitutional Court president.


The Second Senate, however, has remained unfazed and stuck largely to its position, for example this June, when it upheld a complaint from the Green Party that the government had failed to involve the Bundestag adequately in the creation of the ESM and other issues. While still in the courtroom, one of the government's lawyers stated soberly that Vosskuhle's senate continued to display "significant potential for behaving in an unfriendly way toward the government."

At the same time, Vosskuhle often makes clear within his court that it should not ask too much of politics, and that it's important that its rulings are accepted. In the case of the pending decision on the ESM, this means the judges may well be bearing in mind that the Constitutional Court is "part of a large coalition," as its president says, and may decide to take the position of the government's politicians into consideration.

Another point Vosskuhle likes to stress is that the German constitution is "open to Europe." At the same time, though, he warns against creating the situation where German citizens "wake up one day and discover that the representatives they elected no longer have any decisions to make." In other words, the court's position is yes to Europe, but not at the price of democracy or constitutional law. Anyone publicly criticizing this position can count on garnering Vosskuhle's public resistance, something that is unusual for a Federal Constitutional Court president.

Norbert Lammert, the president of the Bundestag and a member of the CDU, got a taste of this when he criticized the court's ruling on the Treaty of Lisbon. Lammert's statements were "strong words for a non-lawyer" and hardly served to "foster a culture of respect," Vosskuhle wrote in a blistering piece in the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Lammert eventually came around and upon "second reading" declared the court's ruling "a brilliant legal concept."

Diligent about Networking

But such open attacks from Vosskuhle are the exception rather than the rule, and something he can afford partly because he is so diligent about networking, resolving many other conflicts through personal contacts. This is his approach within the Constitutional Court as well, where he holds intensive conversations even before the court's deliberations begin. Rather than calling or writing emails, he prefers to walk down the hall and visit in person.

In his inaugural speech at Freiburg University, Vosskuhle stressed that "you do not steer a large ship alone." Yet he never leaves any doubt who is captain here in Karlsruhe. "He knows very well that he's the boss," says one judge, "but he tries to bring people together without dominating." Before Vosskuhle, the atmosphere within the Second Senate was considered frosty, with the occasional slammed door, for example during the deliberations leading up to the court's ruling on the debate over Islamic headscarves.

"Vosskuhle couples elegant language with precision," says one colleague, adding that this makes it possible for him to avoid a certain degree of friction. Because the Constitutional Court president is "completely on top of" the details of all the court's cases, the colleague continues, he's better able to bring the judges together. Often he manages to reconcile diverging positions by giving individual passages of the court's decision to different judges to write, rather than having one judge write the entire ruling. This appears to be the approach used to reach the decision that Vosskuhle will announce on Wednesday.

Some criticize the method. "He gives each person the impression that he or she has a particular alliance with him," says another judge, adding that Vosskuhle, officially a Social Democrat, also approaches those judges who were nominated by the CDU -- and gives them a glimpse of his conservative leanings.

Pushing the Debate Forward

In this case, the captain may have gone too far in his efforts to explain everything to the politicians and find acceptance for his position. For the last year, Vosskuhle has been repeating that the limits of the European integration process are valid only under the German constitution. "If we wanted to go beyond these limits, and under certain circumstances that could absolutely be the right path and the one we want to take, then Germany would need a new constitution," Vosskuhle has said. And a new constitution would require a referendum.

Until Vosskuhle began his advance, hardly anyone seriously considered replacing the current constitution. Now that option is dominating the debate, with Merkel having taken the first step with her push for an "EU treaty convention."

Ultimately it may turn out that Vosskuhle was not only the youngest president of the Constitutional Court of a sovereign Federal Republic of Germany. He might also be the last.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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