Who judges the judges?

Dear Reader,

The Verfassungsgericht is the highest authority in Germany. Seated in Karlsruhe in the far south, the court’s job is to decide whether new legislation is compatible with the constitution, far from the noise of the Hauptstadt.

But what happens when those sages in red seem a little too close for comfort to the grubby world of Berlin politics?

The current head of the court is Stephan Harbarth, a lawyer who spent nine years in the Bundestag for the conservative CDU party. During this time he voted on a series of laws he has since been involved in judging.

That’s not the only unusual thing about Harbarth. He is a lawyer by training, not a judge. 

While seated in the Bundestag he carried on his work for a law firm he had founded and which counts Volkswagen among its clients.

His outside earnings during that time reportedly amounted to over a million euros a year, an eye-watering sum which appears to contradict rules stating that MdBs’ main source of income should be their parliamentary salary.

When the CDU nominated him to the country’s highest court in late 2018 the decision met with disgruntlement. When Harbarth put himself forward for the vacant post of head judge in 2020 even more voices were raised.

Several legal complaints have been made against his position, one by a law firm representing car owners suing Volkswagen over diesel manipulation. They say Harbarth can’t be an objective judge against a company which effectively paid part of his salary. All complaints have been dismissed - by Harbarth’s peers at the constitutional court.

Now the CDU man is the subject of another legal complaint.

At the end of June, he and another judge met with Angela Merkel and Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht for dinner at the Chancellery. Harbarth proposed a discussion on “decisions made at times of uncertainty.”

According to a report in Welt am Sonntag, Lambrecht used the opportunity to defend the government’s lockdown policies. “We were faced with a ‘knowledge vacuum.’ Nevertheless, there was a need to confront the Corona pandemic decisively,” a draft of her speech read.

The only problem: several legal complaints against lockdowns are waiting to be heard by the constitutional court. Did Harbath cross a red line by allowing the government to make its case at a closed-door dinner?

Some legal experts think so. Niko Härting, head of a Berlin law firm, asked the Verfassungsgericht to recuse Harbath from the upcoming hearings.

But the constitutional court wasn’t convinced. In rejecting the case this week, the judges said that there was no evidence that Harbath chose the evening’s topic to allow members of the federal government to make their case for national lockdowns.

Fair enough. How could Harbath have known that those savvy politicians would seize on the opportunity to score a political point? It’s not as if he’s spent much time around them…

Masks forever!

One of the disenfranchised groups that I’m most happy to see finally getting a voice in society is hypochondriacs. Long dismissed for the fact that they could see and feel illnesses that no one else could, we are now learning that that is their major strength!

Why not wear masks all year round, just like the Japanese? You never know what dangerous germs that weird-looking man sitting across from you on the U-Bahn is carrying.

Okay, it’s true. Germany’s children’s wards are currently filling up with toddlers and babies who haven’t been able to build up natural immunity towards air-borne infections like the RSV virus during Covid restrictions.

Sure, children’s wards in Hamburg and Berlin have already run out of capacity, meaning they have to send sick babies to smaller towns like Lübeck.

Yes, alright. Mothers wearing masks can’t pass immunity on to their babies through the umbilical cord or through their milk if they haven’t come in contact with viruses themselves.

What’s that? Weakened natural immunity to influenza among adults due to mask wearing means that health experts fear a particularly tough flu season this winter.

Surely this all means one thing though - we need more masks and we need them more of the time!

Let’s ignore those dangerously libertarian Swiss doctors who want an end to restrictions for the vaccinated so that they can rebuild natural immunity. Turn off the telly when loudmouths like Dr. Klaus Stöhr tells us that children shouldn’t be wearing masks in school.

I prefer to take my advice from a sensible German virologist like Ulrike Protzer, Professor at the Technical University of Munich. 

“If we stop wearing masks now, all these cold viruses and also the flu will come back starting in December,” she warned public broadcaster ARD, advising against lifting the rules until the spring.

Hear! Hear!

The Sternchen’s Stern

A couple of weeks ago, a German celebrity felt like staff at a swanky Leipzig hotel weren’t paying enough attention to him. 

Gil Ofarim, former star of Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, who is Jewish, complained after the incident in a tearful post to Instagram that the staff at the Westin, had let other people pass in front of him in the queue and then refused to allow him to check in because he was wearing a neck chain with the Star of David on it.

“I’m standing there with my neckchain, which is my right,” he recalled in the video. When he was finally called up, the receptionist supposedly told him: “Put your star away, then you can check in.”

A post shared by Gil Ofarim (@gilofarim)

The post, since viewed over 3 million times, led to immediate international outcry.

“How an antisemitic incident in Leipzig highlighted the chilling emergence of the far-right in Germany’s east” explained the Independent in the UK to its readers.

The news made it all the way to the other side of the Atlantic, where the Washington Post reported that “Jewish group condemns singer's treatment” and the New York Times noted that Germany’s political leadership were “outraged” (what else?).

The general tilt of the coverage: Those nasty, xenophobic east Germans - do they know no shame!

It’s just a shame that this global indignation happened before any facts about the case had been established.

The receptionists said they were the victims of slander, but the hotel put them on leave while it looked into the case. Meanwhile Leipzig police opened an investigation into a hate crime.

Now though, Bild Zeitung has obtained CCTV footage from the foyer before the incident took place. Ofarim’s Star of David isn’t visible, either because he wasn’t wearing it or because it was hidden.

Leipzig police told the tabloid that they have “grave doubts” about the actor’s version of events.

Asked by Bild for a response, Ofarim said that people were focusing unnecessarily on the neckchain. “I am often seen on TV wearing the Star of David, so they insulted me because of it,” he said, implying that the receptionist’s demand for him to take it off had been of a more general nature.

One of Ofarim’s stories doesn’t make sense. Perhaps he was insulted and exaggerated the story… perhaps there was a misunderstanding… or perhaps he is a spoiled celebrity who threw a hissy fit. Only a few people present know what really happened.

Either way, the incident once again reveals the underlying moral hysteria that has developed when we talk about east Germany. 

Yes, east Germany has its problems. That doesn’t mean that basic due diligence can be thrown out of the window any time anything slightly controversial happens there.

Gas lighting

I commented in my last article that German media and politicians seemed to be sleeping while an energy price crisis was brewing.

Well, what a difference a week makes. Up until Friday’s big announcement of formal coalition talks, one topic alone dominated the front pages: how to bring energy prices back under control.

Gas, electricity and diesel costs have all hit records over recent weeks and the country is in a panic about what to do. “It’s all Putin’s fault!” cry some. “We need to reverse the nuclear exit,” wail others. “We need more wind power and we need it now,” demanded yet others.

All that has happened so far is an announced drop in the fixed subsidy households pay for renewable electricity. But economists doubt this will do more than stabilize electricity costs at their current high rate.

Read my article on the political decisions that have made Germany vulnerable to the energy price shocks:

A Germany winter of discontent?

Coalition latest

As I’m sure you’ve already seen, the SPD, Greens and FDP have agreed to enter into formal coalition talks on the back of a 12-page paper published on Friday.

The headline pledge is “a decade of modernization” without having to raise taxes or change Germany’s famously tight public borrowing rules.

How do they hope to achieve this? Well that’s pretty vague. But read between the lines and there is still room for tax hikes. The text states that “we won’t introduce any new taxes on assets and will not increase taxes such as the income tax, corporate tax or value-added tax.”

That “such as” still leaves room for other levies to be raised such as the mineral oil tax, which already brings in over €40 billion annually. It’s no wonder the Greens and FDP have started a cat fight about who controls the Finance Ministry.

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