A Berlin court ruled on Thursday that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder does not have an automatic right to an office and staff in the German capital as a former chancellor.
Schröder was challenging a decision last May by the Bundestag parliament's budgetary committee, which stripped the former chancellor of the priveleges. Schröder can still appeal Thursday's verdict, which may not be final.
The court argued that only the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, could decide what it spent such money on, and that even if traditionally former German chancellors had received a small office and staff with seemingly no strings attached, as Schröder's legal team had argued, nowhere was this written into law.
"Admittedly there is a unified and lasting 50-year practice according to which a former federal chancellor receives an office with staff," presiding judge Erna Viktoria Xalter said. But she said that this did not equate to a legal right.
Instead, the court pointed to the constitutional guarantee that parliament should have the final word on typical budgetary matters, meaning the Berlin administrative court did not see itself as empowered to interfere.
Xavier also argued that Schröder had taken the wrong group to court: Instead of the federal chancellery (which is responsible for the office on paper), the judge argued Schröder should have challenged his center-left Social Democrat (SPD) party, which had freed up the space for him on the Bundestag's premises.
Wasn't this dispute about Russia, Putin, Ukraine?
Nevertheless, the judge also appeared to question whether the stated reason for the closure was accurate.
"Whatever happened with the Ukraine war, actually?" Xalter asked. "All the world had perceived that this was taking place in that context."
The decision was taken around the height of criticism against Schröder about his ties to Russia — particularly to its state-run oil and gas giants and his personal relations with Vladimir Putin — amid Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.
The decision led to the closure of the seven-room offices with four staff members (some had reportedly already quit in protest at Schröder's behavior earlier that year). The move had no impact on Schröder's security detail or his pension.
However, parliament had made no mention of Ukraine, Russia, Gazprom or Putin when taking the decision, instead justifying it by arguing that the former chancellor "no longer carries out any duties that result from his former office" and so no longer needed the facility.
Schröder's legal team disputed this assessment as well, arguing the former chancellor still received letters and questions from citizens and the media "en masse." Beyond that, it argued that other former chancellors had not necessarily been expected to remain active in order to retain the offices until their deaths.
Schröder was not in court on Thursday. One of his lawyers, Michael Nagel, said he was traveling and planned no immediate statements after the verdict. Nagel also said he would not be commenting, saying that legal representatives of the German government on the other side of the aisle were not doing so either.
Ralph Heiermann, also part of Schröder's legal team, argued in court that Schröder had lost his personal office effectively because of his personal ties to Vladimir Putin, despite this not being the stated reason, and that that "is not worthy of a state governed by the rule of law.
Contentious former chancellor
Schröder, chancellor for two terms from 1998 to 2005, fostered close ties with Russia and then-incoming President Vladimir Putin during his time in office.
After losing the 2005 election to former Chancellor Angela Merkel, these ties intensified and Schröder took up a number of jobs with Russian energy companies, usually on their boards. Russia named him head of Rosneft's supervisory board in 2017, but under heavy pressure Schröder gave that position up again in May last year.
He gave some controversial interviews soon after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in which he was comparatively critical of Kyiv and defended Moscow, certainly by the standards of the current SPD-led German government.
He also went to Moscow several times last year — with current SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz rushing to clarify that he had not requested this course of action and that he did not consider it a good idea or helpful.
The SPD tried to expel him from the party on the basis of these Russian ties (a move that would be unprecedented for so senior a politician), but their first attempt at a special tribunal failed.
msh/rs (AFP, dpa, Reuters)