But there’s a good chance that, by the end of this week, it could be illuminated again when German legislators — quite suddenly — take up marriage equality in what will be a free vote of conscience for all members of the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament.
As Friday is the final day in legislative session for the Bundestag, German chancellor Angela Merkel has acquiesced to the vote after facing pressure from each of the three parties that could coalesce with Merkel after the September 24 federal elections. Freed from the strictures of party discipline, many of Merkel’s conservatives are expected to join with marriage equality proponents on the center and left for an easy majority.
Within days — or even hours — the Bundestag is likely to legalize same-sex marriage. Just like that. Ehe für alle, marriage for all, will become a reality in the country of 82 million.
It’s a win-win-win. Merkel takes a long-contentious issue off the agenda for the election campaign, despite the fact that LGBT marriage rights are an issue that deeply divide her party. Merkel’s opponents can claim that their leadership forced Merkel into a retreat on the issue. Both sides see advantages for the campaign ahead. And, of course, for same-sex couples in Germany, their unions will finally be recognized on the same scale as other marriages.
For years, even as the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and the Nordics all implemented full recognition of same-sex marriage, Germany lingered in an odd limbo. Due to the socially conservative views of many members of chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), same-sex marriage hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of the German legislative agenda since Merkel took power in 2005. Many CDU politicians are still uncomfortable with LGBT marriage on religious grounds, and that’s doubly true for the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, Christian Social Union), which historically is highly influenced by social conservatism and the teachings of the Catholic Church.
In her first term, from 2005 to 2009, Merkel was forced into an unexpected ‘grand coalition’ with Germany’s center-left and in no position to lead the way on marriage equality in Europe. But in her second and third terms, Merkel had enough problems maintaining a working relationship with the CSU. She hasn’t had the best relationship with Horst Seehofer, Bavaria’s minister-president of and CSU chair since 2008 — he and his state government allies have grumbled about bailouts to states like Greece, and he was a fierce critic in 2015 of Merkel’s refugee policy (and remains a sharp skeptic of wider immigration and European integration, generally). Merkel could hardly afford was to alienate Seehofer and her Bavarian colleagues over same-sex marriage. Just two months ago, the CSU was plotting to wage a campaign in September that emphasizes family values and pro-children policies, so he is probably not thrilled that Merkel has capitulated to pressure now.
For much of the last decade, Germany’s constitutional court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, has nudged the country closer to marriage equality. In 2001, then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder enacted the Life Partnership Act in 2001 when the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) governed alongside Die Grünen (the Greens). The constitutional court approved the law in 2002, and Schröder’s leftist coalition passed a follow-up law in 2004 that increased the rights available to same-sex partners, though that hasn’t traditionally included the full right to adopt.
In light of Merkel’s inaction over the years, the constitutional court has chipped away at the disparities for same-sex couples, finding a 2009 right for pension benefits, a 2010 right to equal inheritance tax rules and a landmark 2013 right to full tax equality, including joint filing.
An affirmative decision for marriage equality would complete the transition that Schröder began 16 years ago, and it will bring Germany in line with the rest of western Europe, a welcome step for the European Union’s most populous country, which lies at the cultural, political and economic heart of Europe.
Merkel herself has always been reticent on the topic, in part, some have suggested, because of her conservative upbringing as the daughter of a Protestant minister. But she appointed Germany’s first openly gay foreign minister and vice chancellor in 2009 — the late Guido Westerwelle, who then headed the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), Merkel’s junior coalition partner, a socially and economically liberal party that has long supported same-sex marriage rights.
Even within her own camp, same-sex marriage is becoming a less controversial matter, and at least one leading CDU figure is openly gay, including rising star Jens Spahn, deputy finance minister and a potential Merkel successor. Stefan Kaufmann, a CDU Bundestag member from Stuttgart since 2009, is also openly gay, as is Bernd Fabritius, a CSU Bundestag member from Bavaria who was born in Romania and fled communist rule there with his parents. Undoubtedly, many CDU and CSU legislators will now vote in favor of marriage equality later this week, adding support to near-unanimous support from the SPD, the Greens, the FDP and the socialist Die Linke (the Left Party).
Earlier this month, the Greens, then the Free Democrats, then the Social Democrats all refused to join a future coalition with Merkel without the promise of a free vote on marriage equality. When Merkel indicated she would be willing to back down on the issue earlier this week, it paved the way for SPD leader Martin Schulz to demand a vote before the election. Schultz, who only recently embraced full marriage equality, has struggled in the campaign. A former president of the European Parliament, he returned to domestic politics in January to stand as the SPD’s chancellor candidate. For a while, the SPD seemed to erase the CDU’s polling lead, but Schulz has lost ground over the spring, and the SPD failed a key bellwether in the May state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (Schulz’s home state), where the SPD’s Hannelore Kraft had governed since 2010.
Nevertheless, a tactical retreat was smart politics for Merkel, too, who can now put the issue to rest. Polls show that same-sex marriage enjoys the support of three-fourths or more (possibly 83% or more) of the German electorate, so its enactment seemed like a foregone conclusion — it was only a question of now much-delayed timing. By allowing the vote to move forward now, there’s not much that Seehofer and Merkel’s more conservative peers in the CDU and CSU can do to punish her with so little time until the election. With the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) collapsing in the polls from nearly 15% last year to just 7% to 9% today, and going through internal turmoil, social conservatives have few alternatives but to go along with Merkel, yet again, as she hopes to coast to what would be a fourth term.
No one will doubt the political circumstances — even transactionality — around Germany’s likely big step toward marriage equality. But as Germany (and Merkel) have become larger symbols of the values of liberalism in the wake of Brexit and the election of US president Donald Trump, there’s no denying the symbolic value that Germany will now be part of the marriage equality club. Regionally, this will place some pressure on surrounding countries (like Italy, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Greece) where same-sex couples are still only permitted to join civil unions. But it could especially tilt attitudes in central and eastern Europe, where many countries have instituted constitutional limits on same-sex marriage, including Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia.