German economists stoke legal showdown with ECB

* ECB got backing from top European court last year

* Top German economists now urge limit on ECB freedom

FRANKFURT, Jan 25 (Reuters) - A group of influential German economists urged the country’s judges on Monday to take a stand against one of the European Central Bank’s crisis-fighting tools, highlighting the unease in Germany about how the euro zone is run.

The call to effectively curb the ECB’s freedom to act comes in a report published by the so-called ‘Kronberg Circle’, which includes two of the German government’s economic advisors or ‘wise men’ - Lars Feld and Volker Wieland.

Their recommendation relates to the rejection by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) - the EU’s top legal authority - of a German group’s challenge to the ECB’s freedom to buy government bonds in an emergency.

The ECJ’s decision is now being reviewed by Germany’s own constitutional court.

“The German court should send a signal to Frankfurt ... that you can’t do whatever you like,” Feld told journalists, advocating a protest although not an outright rejection of the ECJ’s view. The ECB declined to comment.

If the German constitutional court follows the experts’ advice in its final ruling later this year, this would raise fresh doubts about the ECB’s scope to act.

Any outright rejection by the German judges, which is not likely, could, for instance, make it hard for the Bundesbank to participate in ECB bond buying - a major part of the central bank’s policy arsenal.

Such a step could prompt a conflict between Europe’s top court and the judges of its most powerful country.

At the very least, the recommendation from the ‘Kronberg Circle’ will rekindle a debate in the euro zone’s biggest member state about the power of the ECB, an institution viewed with mistrust by many Germans.

Judges in the German constitutional court will make a final ruling later this year.

They had been leaning in favour of a 35,000-strong group from Germany, including politicians and academics, who sought to dismantle the OMT bond-buying scheme the ECB created in 2012 but never used.

The programme was launched at the height of the euro zone debt crisis, shortly after ECB President Mario Draghi said the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to prevent the collapse of the currency.

The case is a clear reminder that many in Germany have misgivings about a currency their then-chancellor Helmut Kohl helped create in the early 1990s but which they now fear has bound their nation to bail out spendthrifts such as Greece. (Reporting By John O’Donnell; Editing by Toby Chopra)