Condemned to neutrality: a muzzle for the chamber of commerce

The Hamburg Chamber of Commerce opposed the city’s repurchase of the energy networks in the referendum. That was illegal.

Political statements will be rare in the future: The Hamburg Chamber of Commerce Photo: dpa/Christian Charisius

Whenever a political course is set in Hamburg, Hans-Jorg Schmidt-Trenz is there. Naturally, the CEO of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce did his best to promote the bid for the Olympic Games and was in the front row of all the pictures of the losers after the referendum. No sooner had the struggle for the Olympics been lost than he commented on the defeat on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce as a "serious setback for the forward-looking nature of our city."

Schmidt-Trenz, on the other hand, was unusually silent in his reaction to a court ruling on his own behalf. Last week, the Hamburg Administrative Court muzzled the Chamber of Commerce and its opinionated front man. The court ruled that the Chamber of Commerce had to restrain itself from making political statements.

The entrepreneur and Green Party leader of Hamburg-Eimsbuttel Dominik Lorenzen had sued. The 38-year-old had been "totally annoyed by the polemical campaign of the Chamber of Commerce" against the buyback of the energy networks, which was voted on in the last Hamburg referendum to date in September 2013. At that time, the chamber had joined the initiative "No to the grid purchase" and Schmidt-Trenz had called a buyback a "Schildburgerstreich" and a "frittering away" of taxpayers’ money. But this unilateral commitment of the chamber was not compatible with applicable law, the court now ruled.

In its ruling, Chamber 17 of the Administrative Court states that the Chamber’s joining the "No to the net buyback" initiative was just as unlawful as the use of the Chamber of Commerce logo in the anti-buyback campaign. He also said that the Schmidt-Trenz remarks, since he had not made them as a private citizen, were clearly "unlawful." "The judge has shown the chamber the red card," rejoiced plaintiff Lorenzen, whose application the court has now granted on all counts.

In its ruling, the Hamburg Administrative Court found that "the following actions of the defendant were unlawful."

Joining the initiative "No to the net purchase"

Use of the Chamber of Commerce logo under the statement "Not with my money" published as a poster and advertisement

Statements by the chamber of commerce’s chief executive officerinsofar as the latter describes the subject of the referendum as a "fool’s errand" and a "frittering away" of money.

In his lawsuit, Lorenzen had referred to a 2010 ruling by the Federal Administrative Court, in which the latter had declared the participation of the Hessian chambers of industry and commerce in a declaration of principles on Hesse as a business location to be unlawful. In addition, the court had told the chambers to "exercise the highest possible degree of objectivity" in expressing their opinions and to exercise strong "restraint" in making general political statements.

This is also necessary because of the compulsory membership of commercial enterprises in the chamber, which cannot leave even if they do not like the political statements of the chamber. This is another reason why political statements must be approved in advance by the chambers’ general assembly, the court ruled.

"All this could not be reconciled with the actions of the Chamber of Commerce on the subject of the network buyback," said Lorenzen, explaining his complaint. At the beginning of the year, Schmidt-Trenz had emphasized in an interview with the site: "Our position on the repurchase of the networks has been legitimized by all bodies of the chamber."

"We will now wait for the written reasons of the court and then decide whether we will appeal," announced the spokesman of the chamber, Jorn Arfs. "It will be referred to the relevant chamber bodies in due course." But which are those, about it the speaker shrouds himself also on inquiry in silence. Plaintiff Lorenzen demands that the plenum of the chamber, in which the oppositional grouping "Die Kammer sind wir" is also represented, as the highest chamber body "broadly debates whether the chamber accepts the verdict" and henceforth changes its external presentation. That would significantly limit their political appearance. And immobilize Schmidt-Trenz against her will.