Not a very good day for equality in Germany

Alphia Abdikeeva, CIDH Pro Igual

Last week the highest appellate court in Germany ruled that hotels could turn away right-wing extremists on grounds of the latter´ political views.

The case that received considerable domestic attention concerned a hotel in the state of Brandenburg which, in 2009, refused to provide a room to the former head of the extreme right-wing National Democratic Party (NPD), Udo Voigt. Voigt sued the hotel for discrimination, for banning him on the grounds of his political opinions. The hotel argued that the right-wing extremist´s presence was detrimental to the hotel´s image and reputation. The lower instance courts found in favor of the hotel.

The Federal Court of Justice ruled that while the hotel could not retroactively cancel the booking, because it failed to demonstrate how Vogt had previously upset other guests with his presence, the hotel was fundamentally “free to decide whom it accepts and whom it does not.” The highest Court admitted that the case raised extremely difficult legal issues, including whether hotels (and by extension restaurants, discos, shops, etc.) are public spaces open to everyone. The case also pitted personal freedom/autonomy against equality. Article 3 of the German Basic Law bans discrimination, inter alia, on the basis of religious or political views. However, the Court stated this principle may not apply between private people and companies.

This is where the Court, in my opinion, was monumentally wrong. First of all, the principle of discrimination does apply in both public and private sphere. Although the concept may be still new and even somewhat alien in Germany, the EU Race Directive, which Germany had to transpose, extends prohibition of discrimination to both public and private sector. Article 3.1(h) of the Race Directive specifically stipulates non-discriminatory “access to and supply of goods and services which are available to the public, including housing.” Second, the German Basic Law (Article 18) contains a clause whereby persons abusing their constitutional rights could forfeit those rights. The German Court chose instead to conclude that private establishments are free to choose whether and to whom render their services.

So, before we yield to the temptation to celebrate that neo-Nazi thugs would from now on sleep in the streets instead of hotels, let´s consider implications of the ruling. In reality, what is more likely to happen and in fact happens practically on a daily basis: that private service establishments would turn away white right-wing extremists, or unpopular immigrants/minorities? This was a rather unique case involving the known neo-Nazi, that is, someone a priori rejecting the very principle he tried to invoke. But with this ruling, the Court has handed German private establishments a legal license to discriminate.

All in all, not a very good day for equal treatment in Germany.