German Chancellor Angela Merkel is often lauded in the Western press as an example of a strong national leader that proudly stands up for socially liberal values. This was most notably demonstrated by the approach many organisations took to her decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, much to the opposition of other EU states. However for advocates of LGBT equality there has always been a black rain cloud above Mrs Merkel when she is described in such glowingly positive terms as she and her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have always opposed the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The news yesterday was that the CDU may change this position.
Angela Merkel’s party is rooted in German Christian philosophy and as a result has often opted for the traditionally dominant definition of marriage. This has meant a rigid defence of heterosexual marriage despite public opinion shifting away from this understanding. In an attempt to strengthen her position among more liberally minded Germans the Chancellor has signaled that she now favours party whips a conscience vote in the Bundestag without an official party line being enforced through the whip system.
This would be hugely significant as the SPD, FDP, the Greens and Die Linke along with some more liberal members of the CDU all back marriage equality. The success of any bill in the near future will be dependent on the results of the German federal election in September which is why some SPD MPs are calling for a vote this week. As much as I would welcome a vote this week I don’t believe that there will be one because this risks alienating some of Merkel’s more conservative base. But this shouldn’t be a source of despair.
The most recent poll for the German federal election puts the CDU/CSU on 37%, the SPD on 26%, the Greens on 6.5%, the FDP on 9%, Die Linke on 10% and the right-wing AfD on 8.5%. We don’t know how these seats will be divided up exactly because of the German electoral system, but if we presumed that this vote share will be transferred into more or less the same proportion of seats, which I’m aware isn’t quite what happens, the picture looks quite good. Under these circumstances, the CDU/CSU will have approximately 233 seats, the SPD will have 164, the Greens will have 41, the FDP will have 57, Die Linke will have 63, and the AfD will have 54. Again let me stress that these numbers are inaccurate, albeit educated, estimates.
Even if this hypothetical situation I’ve postulated above turns out to be surprisingly accurate, the prospect of marriage equality being passed is still good. In this situation pro-equality parties (SPD, FDP, the Greens, and Die Linke) have 325 seats, and this is more than the 316 needed to have a majority. This slim majority emphasises the need to not get complacent. As I’ve said the above situation is an estimate with a number of caveats and as a result the more CDU MPs that vote for equality will be very welcome indeed.
Back to Merkel, some German commentators have actually gone as far as saying that this announcement may indicate that Chancellor has changed her own position. A report by the BBC said that Merkel had previously opposed same-sex marriage on the grounds that children’s welfare may be at risk. However the report goes on to say that Merkel said in a debate organsied by the German magazine Brigitte that she had met with a lesbian couple in her constituency. The couple in question in question had fostered eight children with the permission of the Land government. In the debate she said this couple had made an impact on her and she said: “I can no longer argue so simply on the basis of children’s welfare”. I don’t know if Merkel has personally changed her opinion on the issue but if she did publicly come out for same-sex marriage, more moderate CDU MPs will not discouraged from supporting any prospective legislation.
The other part of this story to recognise is that the upper chamber of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, is not up for election as it is comprised of appointed representatives from Länder governments. Because of this electoral reality we can easily ascertain if a bill passed in the Bundestag would win the support of the upper house. The states bloc vote and any bill requires 35 votes to pass. Of the 69 members of the Bundesrat, 34 represent Länder with pro-equality parties. Only one more Land would have to back pro-equality legislation. And this is highly likely as a little over a year ago the Bundesrat agreed to allow same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.
To be clear, the Bundesrat doesn’t pass legislation in the same way that the US Senate or the UK House of Lords, but approval by the Bundesrat is necessary. In theory the Bundesrat could veto such a bill but in order to overturn that veto there would have to be another vote in the Bundestag with over 50% of MPs voting in favour. But I don’t believe that such a veto would be deployed because, as the article linked to above points out, the Bundesrat has already approved a provisional same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption bill.
The advance of LGBT rights in Germany will have a lasting impact on the continent as a whole. As the largest country in Europe, Germany will be able to manipulate the discourse in neighbouring countries and this I believe will start a small domino effect. Although legalised same-sex marriage in Germany will not inherently help LGBT people in Poland, Czech Republic and Austria, such a positive step forward will likely stimulate a political conversation in these countries, especially in countries where public opinion in the favour of marriage equality.
There are also two ways in which Merkel’s personal support would help the struggle for LGBT equality in Central and Eastern Europe. Firstly, Merkel’s support would demonstrate that one can be a conservative and a Christian whilst simultaneously supporting the equal treatment of LGBT people. And secondly, Merkel’s support would illustrate that it is perfectly acceptable to change one’s mind on this issue. If a well known right-wing Christian leader comes out in favour of marriage equality, other self-described Christians and self-described conservatives may well reconsider the issue. Most will not change their minds but it will remove some of venom from the idea and make the daily lives of LGBT people more tolerable.
I’ve previously argued that Greece and Italy were also on the brink of a major breakthrough in this area but progress in recent months has stalled. If Germany did legislate on this issue, I am quietly confident that calls will begin to get louder in these Southern European states. The Refugee Crisis and the Eurozone Crisis have both shown how influential Germany can be, especially in relation to Southern Europe. If marriage equality was introduced countries across the continent will take note.
The other important way I think that the legalisation of same-sex marriage would be significant is in the context of Russia. At risk of saying the understatement of the century, Russia is not a fan of the gays. In 2013 the country passed its notorious anti-‘gay propaganda’ law and in recent months there have been accusations of gay people being sent to concentration camps in Chechnya. However Germany is the closest European ally of the Russian Federation and as such the march for equality may gain a few more supporters in Russia. This is a highly optimistic thought as the Russian Orthodox Church is the primary agent behind the construction of anti-gay social norms, but that doesn’t mean that marriage equality in Germany would have a positive, albeit, modest impact.
To conclude, if the reports out of Germany are true then we may finally see another Western state adopt equal marriage. Merkel has not led the fight for LGBT rights and up until this moment has actively stood in the way of equality. Nevertheless these legal steps forward need as much political support as possible and LGBT people across thee world would welcome Merkel’s decision. The CSU, the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, are likely to lobby against any change to the CDU’s position but given the current electoral calculus these protestations should be in vain.
Progressive parties have a majority in the Bundestag and this alone is enough to push any proposed bill through. It is unknown what the reaction to legalisation would be in other European countries but I sincerely hope that it challenges people in Central and Eastern Europe who have previously had no opinion on the issue to embrace marriage equality. Indeed as the American slavery abolitionist Theodore Parker once said: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.