| BERLIN, Sept 10
BERLIN, Sept 10 Angela Merkel may be the most
powerful woman in Europe, but this week the chancellor's plans
to save the euro lie in the hands of Andreas Vosskuhle, the
supreme court judge known as Germany's most powerful man.
In a ruling with global ramifications, the Constitutional
Court is expected on Wednesday to allow an EU bailout fund and
budget pact, although most legal experts expect it to impose
conditions to show that parliament controls Germany's budget.
Wednesday's verdict will test the authority of the court,
and of Vosskuhle, its youngest ever president at 48, a
pragmatist who must balance the issue's weighty theoretical
questions with its tremendous real world consequences.
"The pressure is on, he knows that. But for him it is part
of a job that he takes very seriously," one of his colleagues
said privately, adding that Vosskuhle's "pragmatic openness"
stood him in good stead to reconcile any competing views among
the eight "diva-like" judges considering the case.
The principle that parliament has supreme authority is
fundamental to a post-Nazi constitution designed to ensure
Germans are never again denied democratic rights. Vosskuhle's
court has repeatedly held Merkel's government to account in the
past over whether EU treaties break this rule.
But Vosskuhle will also be well aware of the stakes for
politicians - desperate to keep tools they believe are needed to
fight the debt crisis - and for financial markets - which would
surely panic if the euro rescue measures were blocked.
Surveys show Germans trust the judges to get it right. Legal
experts expect a nuanced judgment that may let Merkel pursue her
policy now while setting limits for the future.
The court must determine whether the government can sign
Germany up to the European Stability Mechanism fund, intended to
provide bailout funding for weaker euro zone states, and a
fiscal pact that gives Brussels authority over deficits.
Not a single legal expert in a Reuters poll believed the
court would rule the measures unconstitutional. But Vosskuhle
has indicated that Merkel has been pushing at the limits of what
can be done without a historic change in the constitution.
In a rare media interview a year ago, he said Germany's
scope for shifting power to the European Union institutions in
Brussels had "probably been largely exhausted".
Vosskuhle is aware that to sink Europe's joint bailout fund
would be "the most momentous decision the court has taken in its
entire history," said public law professor Mattias Kumm. "And it
makes him sceptical about going down that route."
In his two and a half years as court president, Vosskuhle
has won respect for rulings which balanced parliament's
sovereignty with the political expediency of letting the
government work with European peers to save the single currency.
A move in July to set more time to make a ruling impressed many
as deftly diplomatic.
Plucked from academia in 2008 to sit on the court in the
southwestern town of Karlsruhe, Vosskuhle is a declared
supporter of European integration.
Though not a party member, he acknowledges an affinity with
Social Democratic values. He was nominated by Merkel's
centre-left opponents, who have generally been more supportive
of the euro than some in the chancellor's own conservative bloc.
Large black-rimmed spectacles and chubby cheeks give him
boyish looks that may seem out of keeping with the gravity of
his office. But he speaks with great earnestness about what he
sees as a mission to defend democracy in a nation still marked
by a history that saw it give up individual rights.
"Democracy has its price," Vosskuhle said in June. "But
cutting back on it could be very expensive," he said.
Kumm, head of the Rule of Law Centre at Berlin's Social
Science Research Centre, said Vosskuhle is "in touch with global
integration - he endorses and embraces it," but added: "But he
believes politicians should get people involved."
In a series of rulings on EU integration under Vosskuhle,
the court has demanded a bigger say for parliament, delaying but
stopping short of blocking Merkel's policies becoming law.
That has reinforced perceptions of the court as a dog that
barks but doesn't bite, a tag that annoys Vosskuhle a great
deal, according to one person who knows him.
He is certainly not afraid of upsetting politicians in
Berlin. The court's most closely scrutinised ruling under him
was a 2009 decision on the European Union's Lisbon Treaty which
changed the bloc's constitutional framework.
The court delayed the treaty's implementation by ruling that
parliament's role in EU decision-making had to be enhanced.
Though he says he "feels close to Social Democracy", he is
known to have a good relationship with the conservative Merkel.
She even touted him as a candidate for the figurehead role of
president this year. Media reported he was not tempted.
Vosskuhle was born in 1963 in the northern town of Detmold
and followed his father into the legal profession. His wife is
also a lawyer.
Amiable but serious-minded, Vosskuhle avoids dominating his
colleagues and is not confrontational, say people who know him.
His office does not give him a deciding vote over his fellow
judges, who sit dressed in red robes and traditional hats.
"Whoever likes duelling should go to the cinema," Vosskuhle
is quoted as saying.
He may eschew competitive machismo, but his quiet,
diplomatic style is effective, say colleagues. He is skilled at
his main job of bringing together a group of strong-minded
judges, said the person who works with him.
As an amateur chef, Vosskuhle is said to gather guests in
his kitchen, get them to chop vegetables over a glass of wine
and together concoct a dish relished by everyone.
"Vosskuhle stirs the dressing himself," wrote the
Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "You can imagine how he operates
as top judge."