The Irish vote for gay marriage reverberates through Germany

The Economist – Jun 20th 2015 | BERLIN | From the print edition

German same-sex unions

At the end of the Regenbogen

The Irish vote for gay marriage reverberates through Germany

SINCE Ireland voted in May to allow same-sex marriage, Europe has had a clear divide: liberal in the west but more illiberal going east. Germany is in the middle. Since 2001 gay and lesbian couples have been able to enter civil unions, and 35,000 have done so. They enjoy the same rights as heterosexual spouses for tax and inheritance. But same-sex couples do not have full adoption rights, and their union is not called marriage.

Many Germans find this embarrassing. A 2013 poll found 74% in favour of full marriage rights for homosexuals. So are the opposition Greens and Die Linke (The Left) in parliament, as well as the Social Democrats, the junior party in the ruling grand coalition. The upper-house Bundesrat, where these three parties have a majority, recently passed a non-binding resolution urging the government to make marriage available to all.

That was largely symbolic, because of opposition within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right block, consisting of two “Christian” parties: her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the more conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union. The phrase “Christian union” came from a post-war confessional alliance between Catholic and Lutheran parties from the Weimar Republic. But conservatives now invoke Christian values to argue against same-sex marriage. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the premier of Saarland, who is often touted as a possible successor to Mrs Merkel, recently argued that if you allow gay marriage, incestuous or polygamous nuptials might be next.

Yet within the CDU attitudes are changing. The defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, another possible successor to Mrs Merkel, this month told the party’s executive committee that “something fundamental has changed in society.” If Irish Catholics can relax about gay marriage, so can German ones, says Jens Spahn, a gay member of the committee. Mrs Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, has been coy but is thought to be tolerant in private. She visibly squirmed when asked during the 2013 campaign to explain her party’s rejection of gay marriage. But she knows she has moved the CDU leftward in the 15 years she has led it. Many blame her for the emergence of a new party on the right, the Alternative for Germany, which attracts disgruntled former Christian Democrats.

Such objections are tactical, says Alexander Vogt, leader of the gay-and-lesbian club within the CDU. As is her wont, Mrs Merkel chooses battles carefully. Right now—with Grexit, Brexit and Ukraine—she faces many. She might also like to keep gay marriage alive as an issue to concede to the Greens, whom she may prefer as a coalition partner after the 2017 election. One way or another, says Mr Vogt, Germany will have same-sex marriage soon afterwards.

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