A 10-Hour Day in a German Court, Boring? Think Again

A day in court. The German constitutional court no less. The “Bundesverfassungsgericht” . Boring? — No way! Trust me on this one. From the word “go” it didn't feel just like any other hearing at the highest court in the land.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
Nikada | Vetta | Getty Images
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Outside the old army barracks-turned-temporary home for the “guardians of the German constitution ” (their regular HQ is being renovated) a motley crew of protesters had gathered to welcome attendants of the day's court proceedings with a potpourri of tunes from “We shall overcome” to the battle hymn of Communism. And a conservative German finance minister rolled past in a black Mercedes cum police escort to the enthusiastically, but not melodiously intoned “… enslaved masses, stand up, stand up … the world is about to change”.

The entrance to the court was plastered with posters such as “You are robbing us of our Future”, “ESM=sellout of our rights” and “Hands off our Constitution” as well as big wreath marking the burial of the German constitution.

What the court wanted to hear on this day was complicated enough: Both houses of parliament – the Bundestag and the Bundesrat — had recently passed a vital package of legislation for Euroland: Germany's approval to join the permanent euro bailout mechanism ESMand the “fiscal pact” for further fiscal coordination.

But before president Joachim Gauck could give the new laws his final seal of approval a host of complainants filed for a temporary injunction with the Constitutional Court aimed at preventing the president from just that, and with it stalling the introduction of the new legislation.

“The magic is here today”, mutters Herta Däubler-Gmelin, former social democrat minister and now court representatives for “More Democracy”, one of the many groups fighting against the permanent euro bailout fund. I’m not sure about “magic”, but one thing is quite clear: even the yea saying, not known for their particularly rebellious nature Germans are beginning to get their hackles up about what they think is a slow, but sure sellout of their postwar economic wealth.

They reluctantly sacrificed their beloved Deutschmark on the altar of European integration, but never only because they were promised that one single country would not have to pay for the debts of another inside the new and wonderful world of the single currency, the euro . Well ….

Usually, the court looks at the arguments for and against such an injunction and simply announces its ruling. Not so this time.

That in itself was a clear indication that the court was not certain which way to lean. And the issue is tricky. IF the court throws out the injunction and permits the President to sign a law that it might later decide is in breach with the constitution, this puts Germany in an impossible position: Germany would then be internationally bound by treaties that are illegal at a national level.

So the scene was set for, shall we say, an “interesting hearing”. The list of attendants was long and illustrious: German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, President of the ifo-Institut Hans-Werner Sinn, prominent LINKE party leader Gregor Gysi and a whole phalanx of academics and government representative who were there to argue the case for their respective sides.

The first half of the almost ten-hour-hearing produced a lot that was expected: Finance Minister Schäuble painted a very grim picture of what might happen to Euroland, if the court decided to stall or block ESM legislation.

The complainants step up one by one and plead their cause — each in strict five-minute intervals. The arguments are well-known. Doubts about the “urgency” of setting up the ESM (We have the European Financial Stability Fund. So why the hurry?); doubts about its effectiveness.

Lunchbreak. The whole courtroom — finance minister and entourage included — pours across the street into the canteen of the Deutsche Flugsicherung (German air traffic control) across the road. Over “Maultaschen” (a Swabian pasta dish) and potato salad, the discussions continue . Telling sign: Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann and Euroskeptic Werner Sinn from the ifo-Institut share a table.

Back in the court room, Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann delivers his sobering verdict. “There are fundamental doubts of the markets as to the security of the currency union”, so Weidmann's damning verdict.

Euro critic Sinn brings familiar arguments to the table: The crisis fighting mechanisms treat the “wrong disease” and that's why they don't work, can't work. The path Germany was heading down now was a “bottomless pit” and Germany could lose up to 771 billion euros (not 772 billion How do they come up with these numbers?).

Now Sinn and Weidmann stand at the microphone together. Weidmann, slightly uncomfortable, mutters: “I am not sure we should be appearing here together.” … hmmm.

We're heading into the ninth hour of the hearing. Judges, attendants and journalists alike a slumping deeper into their chairs.

At the end of the hearing many questions remained unanswered. The court has not decided, but is leaning towards a “deep and thorough” deliberation of the matter in hand. How long will that take? Nobody knows. Where does that leave the euro and the markets? Also exactly where they were before.

Stay tuned for more reports from the German constitutional court …. But this day in court was not boring.