German politicians demand moves to follow Irish referendum

Merkel faces dilemma as survey shows 75% of Germans favour marriage equality

A ghost is haunting Germany: the ghost of Catholic Ireland. Four days after Irish voters backed marriage equality, politicians of all persuasions here are demanding that Germany follow Ireland's example and open civil marriage to all, regardless of sexual orientation.

Behind these demands lies shock. Shock that ausgerechnet Irland – Ireland of all countries – could leapfrog Germany on this key social issue.

In many German minds, Ireland is perceived as the arch-Catholic conservative backwater that progress forgot. But the Yes vote has forced a rapid rethink of how Germany views Ireland – and how liberal Germany considers itself.

Legal gap

Germany was one of Europe’s first countries to legalise same-sex civil partnerships, in 2001. Unlike the Dutch, who legalised same-sex civil marriage the same year, Germany devised a halfway house called


Eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaft

. This same-sex civil partnership is as complicated as it sounds, transferring some rights of marriage to gay civil partners but withholding others.

Over the years Berlin has closed the legal gap to marriage, usually after being forced to do so by the constitutional court. Two recent milestones were an end to tax discrimination between married and gay couples and the right to successive adoption, allowing gay couples to get around the ongoing ban on outright adoption.

By coincidence, Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet will this morning back a package of law changes for same-sex civil partnerships. But this is no milestone, just long-planned fixes to the small print of existing laws. Federal justice minister Heiko Maas, from the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), has said his party would prefer full marriage equality to such legal tinkering. But this is "hard to realise", he said, with the SPD's coalition partners, Dr Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their even more conservative CSU allies from Bavaria.

For Dr Merkel, supporting marriage equality could be the straw that breaks the back of long-suffering conservatives in her ranks. Through gritted teeth, they have watched her discard one trademark CDU issue after another, from compulsory military service to nuclear power.

During a 2013 election television debate, quizzed by a gay man about marriage equality, Dr Merkel said she “had difficulties” with the issue. Her agonised expression suggested she meant her party more than herself. Politically, the German chancellor has good reasons for wishing away the marriage equality debate, but it may only be getting under way.

"If the US supreme court rules soon on gay marriage the way the Irish people have, that will raise the question of why Germany is living in the 20th century on this issue and not the 21st," said Volker Beck of the opposition Green Party, a long-time campaigner for marriage equality.

Free vote

The Green Party is calling for a free


vote to open up civil marriage to all, hoping government MPs will join the opposition to make up a majority. In this, said Beck, one aspect of the Irish referendum will have a positive effect.

"What impressed me and many party strategists here was how people went home to Ireland to vote, and not just gays and lesbians," said Mr Beck. "That shows this goes far beyond gay and lesbian legal rights to issues of social identity and the question: how do we want to live together?"

Calls for marriage equality within Dr Merkel's CDU are still limited to individual voices and interested parties, like the party's Lesbian and Gay committee (LSU). But LSU head Alexander Vogt is optimistic that the CDU and its leader could yet give their backing – or at least drop their opposition – to marriage equality.

"Doing so would not be chasing the zeitgeist, as many critics say, but about viewing this as a human rights issue," he said. "It's time Angela Merkel picked up the pace."

Which brings us to the dilemma for the German leader: while conservatives in the CDU don't support marriage equality, a Stern magazine survey shows that three-quarters of Germans do. Even among CDU voters, two-thirds are in favour.

Germany’s postwar “Basic Law” does not define marriage as being between a man and woman, so all Dr Merkel has to do is decide to legislate for change. Where there is a political will there is a way – even in Germany.