Germany legalises same-sex marriage - without Merkel's blessings

German lawmakers vote by a wide margin to legalise gay marriage, although German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she had voted against it.
Activists stretch a giant rainbow banner in front of the Chancellery in Berlin on April 30, 2017.
Activists stretch a giant rainbow banner in front of the Chancellery in Berlin on April 30, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (REUTERS, AFP) – Germany’s parliament voted on Friday (June 30) to legalise gay marriage after Chancellor Angela Merkel did an about-face that freed members of conservative party to vote their “conscience” rather than follow party lines.

Norbert Lammert, president of the parliament, said 393 lawmakers voted to approve the amendment, while 226 voted against and four abstained. 

The election-year Bill is being pushed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's leftist rivals who pounced on a U-turn she made on Monday - a manoeuvre that left many of her conservative lawmakers fuming.

Merkel, who will seek a fourth term in a national election on Sept 24, said on Friday she voted against the Bill given her personal view that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but she hoped parliament’s approval of the measure would lead to more social cohesion.

“For me, marriage in the Basic Law is marriage between a man and a woman and that is why I did not vote in favour of this bill today,” she told reporters moments after the 393-266 vote in favour of an amendment that will legalise same-sex marriage.

“I hope that the vote today not only promotes respect between different opinions but also brings more social cohesion and peace,” she added.

Many other European countries, including France, Britain and Spain, have already legalised same-sex marriage.

Merkel’s announcement on Monday that she would allow lawmakers to vote on same-sex marriage according to their individual conscience drew the ire of some in her traditionally Catholic conservative bloc.  But political analysts say the issue will likely have faded from voters’ minds by the time the September election comes around.  

Friday’s vote marks a rare victory for Merkel’s Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners, who are trailing the conservatives in opinion polls. They had seized on Merkel’s surprise comments on Monday to say they would push for an early vote before parliament’s summer recess.  

Success in passing the so-called “marriage for all” amendment could provide a sorely needed boost for the centre-left SPD, which has seen a short-lived boost in the polls earlier this year evaporate in recent months.  

The measure will likely be signed into law by the president some time after July 7, and take effect before the end of the year.

Gay and lesbian groups cheered the push for marriage equality in Germany where so-called civil unions were legalised in 2001.

"It's a real recognition, so it warms the heart," said French engineer Christophe Tetu, 46, who lives in Berlin with his partner Timo Strobel, 51.

"We're thinking about having a party, getting married and using our new rights to protect our relationship," he told AFP.

Strobel said he too was "overjoyed" the couple would be able to show family and friends "that we are committed to each other, that we will stay together and we will spend our lives together".

Renate Kuenast of the Greens party, which has pushed for decades for LGBT community rights, quipped cheerfully: "I would advise all registry offices in the country to boost staff numbers." .

'BREACH OF TRUST'

The rapid series of events kicked off with an on-stage interview Merkel gave on Monday to women's magazine Brigitte, in which an audience member asked her: "When can I call my boyfriend my husband if I want to marry him?"

Merkel, who long opposed gay marriage with adoption rights citing "the well-being of the children", replied that her thinking had shifted since she met a lesbian couple who cared for eight foster children.

She said she favoured a vote at an undefined future time when all lawmakers could follow their conscience rather than a party line.

Many read the surprising comments as a move to deny opposition parties of a strong campaign issue before Sept 24 elections.

Merkel's coalition allies the Social Democrats (SPD), as well as the Greens, far-left Linke and pro-business Free Democrats have all declared a gay marriage law as a red-line demand and precondition for an alliance.

And on Tuesday, after much buzz on social media, SPD chancellor-candidate Martin Schulz took Merkel at her word and broke coalition ranks to call for an immediate vote - a move the CDU slammed as a "breach of trust" after four years of joint rule.

Merkel indignantly labelled the political ambush and hasty rush to vote on such a weighty issue "sad and, above all, totally unnecessary".

CONSERVATIVE VALUES

But her change of stance leaves the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) as the only party to oppose same-sex marriage.

Conservative daily the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung predicted that, after the vote, "it will be said Angela Merkel has avoided another stumbling block to post-election coalition talks".

"But the CDU will also have lost its right to be called a conservative party - and instead now appears willing to throw any conservative values overboard in order to keep up with the times."

Markus Ulrich of the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany said Merkel had long argued against gay marriage "in an emotional way and never with real arguments".

"It's very good that she took some time to better understand the reality of same-sex families and couples, in order to get a better picture of the situation.

"We think it's very good and, even if this is happening only because of the electoral campaign, it doesn't matter."