Merkel’s practical approach

Same-sex marriage in Germany

As so often with Angela Merkel, the intervention was low-key but decisive. Taking questions from the audience at an event organised by the women's magazine Brigitte in Berlin last Monday, Merkel was asked by a young man: "When can I get to call my boyfriend my husband?" For years, the German chancellor had resisted any move on same-sex marriage. But this time Merkel didn't reach for a stock answer. Rather she spoke of a "dramatic experience" she had when listening to a lesbian woman in her constituency who had raised eight foster children with her partner. Then came the key line. Her Christian Democrat (CDU) party should move "somewhat in the direction of a question of conscience," Merkel said.

Recognising the signal, the next day Merkel's coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), pushed for a parliamentary vote on marriage equality. And so, last Friday, gay activists cheered and waved rainbow flags outside the Bundestag as the lower house voted in favour by 393 votes to 226. Germany's first same-sex marriage ceremonies will take place in the autumn. That's a cause for celebration far beyond Germany itself.

Events in Berlin underline once again how the embrace of marriage equality is driven by both global and local factors. Only two decades ago, this was a marginal demand. In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow gays to marry, but since then the momentum has been unstoppable. Now it is a reality in Ireland, France, Spain and 19 other countries. Yet the timing has often been rooted in domestic politics. In Ireland, it was the coming to power of the Labour Party in 2011 that put a referendum pledge into the programme for government. France had to wait for a Socialist Party majority in 2012 to surmount conservative opposition.

In the same way, context was everything in Germany. Merkel is hoping to win a fourth term in office in September elections. In recent weeks, the SPD and the pro-business Free Democrats each made marriage equality a condition for joining any future coalition with her party. But Merkel’s decision was also consistent with her own style. A politician ever-careful to move in sync with public opinion would have been well aware of how attitudes have shifted. Polls last week showed that three quarters of Germans favoured marriage equality. Merkel herself, who has recently said she supports adoption by same-sex couples, voted No on the marriage question. That ambiguous position meant that while earning applause for allowing it to happen, she retained some credit in her party’s conservative base.


Meanwhile, the struggle for gay rights continues across the world. Homosexual activity remains illegal in almost 80 countries, and in many places the situation is getting worse. Events in Germany should give hope to those who continue to face oppression elsewhere.