In a historic decision, the lower house of Germany’s parliament on Friday approved four bills to allow marriage between same-sex couples by 393 votes in favor and 226 against. The vote came at the end of a momentous week that catapulted the issue to the top of the political agenda despite opposition from the ruling party, with legislation drafted hastily ahead of the Bundestag’s two-month summer recess.
After a swift yet heated debate, the bill won near unanimous backing from the three left-leaning parties in parliament: the Greens, the Left Party and the Social Democrats. More than a quarter of lawmakers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union also voted in favor of the new law. Ms. Merkel, who voted no, called the discussion long, intense and emotional and nonethelesss said she hoped the vote would promote respect between different opinions and bring greater social cohesion and peace.
The move brings Germany into line with most other Western European countries where marriage between same sex couples is legal. The debate had long been blocked in Germany by conservative lawmakers.
Many of the arguments made on Friday morning in the Bundestag echoed statements by Green Party co-chair Katrin Göring-Eckhardt who said that no-one would lose anything by extending marriage rights to homosexual couples. Eva Högl, a Social Democrat politician and deputy floor leader, told assembled lawmakers that “when people love each other and want to share their lives together, we call that marriage, and there’s no justification for discriminating against that.”
Nonetheless, while Volker Kauder, floor leader for the conservative parties, acknowledged both sides of the argument, conservatives such as the Christian Social Union’s Gerda Hasselfeldt spoke out in opposition to the vote, stating that marriage between heterosexual and same sex couples was not the same thing.
Although what enabled the vote to take place at all was Ms. Merkel’s change of heart on the issue, its outcome and timing are being seen as a political defeat for the center-right chancellor.
The CDU, and its more conservative Bavarian sister party, the CSU, are the only parties in parliament still opposing same-sex marriage. But the parties don’t have a majority, which is why they govern together with the Social Democrats, who dropped marriage equality from their platform to enter government four years ago.
The catalyst for the historic vote came at the start of the week when Ms. Merkel appeared on a chat show. “I would prefer to shift the discussion in a direction of a vote of conscience rather than imposing anything from the top,” she told interviewer Brigitte Huber, freeing her lawmakers from the party’s line on traditional marriage. It seemed a reasonable move by Ms. Merkel, who is running for a fourth term in fall, with the issue firmly on the manifestos of all her potential coalition partners.
But her statement, four days before the parliamentary summer recess, triggered events that spiraled out of control. Rather than waiting until after September’s election, her main challenger, Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, forced a nominal vote together with Green Party and Left Party lawmakers, angering conservatives.
This was certainly not what Ms. Merkel had envisioned when she made her statement on Monday. Pundits derided her “Schabowski moment,” referring to Günther Schabowski, the East German official whose careless answer to a reporter in November 1989 famously led to the fall of the Berlin Wall hours later that day.
The following day, Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer, a practicing Catholic and staunch conservative who, as the head of the CSU, is Ms. Merkel’s most powerful ally and critic, raged against the Social Democrats’ maneuvering, calling it tantamount to breaking up the coalition. SPD politicians stuck to their position. “For Merkel, this was a strategic election issue,” said SPD parliamentary group chairman Thomas Oppermann. “We believe marriage should be for everyone.”
Conservative leaders worried CDU and CSU lawmakers would lose the most in Friday’s vote, fearing that representatives who toed the party’s line risked a backlash from liberal voters after all. On Thursday, Bild newspaper published a poll stating 73 percent of CDU/CSU voters are in favor of equal marriage. But lawmakers voting in line with their beliefs risked losing disgruntled voters to the far-right Alternative for Germany, the last major party to clearly oppose same-sex marriage after Ms. Merkel’s unexpected U-turn.
The conservatives drew sharp criticism for hesitating so long, and Social Democrat Johannes Kahrs rebuked the chancellor for failing to act for so long on the issue. “Ms. Merkel I cannot spare you this, it has been disgraceful and embarrassing. Since 2005 you have supported the discrimination of lesbians and gays and done nothing that would lead to equal treatment.”
“For me, marriage in the basic law is marriage between a man and a woman and that is why I did not vote in favor of this bill today.”
Despite the majority vote, it is still not clear when marriage equality will come into force. Some politicians argued that Germany’s constitution, or Basic Law, will now need to be amended, while others noted that Article 6 of the Basic Law does not specifically define marriage as the union of a woman and a man. Justice Minister Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat, said no change was needed to the constitution, while CSU politician and lawyer Hans-Peter Uhl said he would fight the bill all the way to Germany’s supreme court. Though Ms. Merkel had no choice but to allow Friday’s vote, she seemed to agree there are constitutional questions.
“For me, marriage in the basic law is marriage between a man and a woman and that is why I did not vote in favor of this bill today,” she said.
Germany, which has allowed civil unions since 2001, was long ambivalent about the issue of gay marriage. While Berlin was popular among gay people before World War II, its cabarets a center of gender bending, homosexuality was banned under a law dating back to 1871. The law was strengthened by the Nazis who sent tens of thousands of gay people to concentration camps; many were murdered. Even postwar, in West Germany, the law remained unchanged and 100,000 men were prosecuted up until 1969. It was only later, with the advent of counter-cultural movements that the social consensus began to shift. Laws were eased in 1994 but conservative opposition to full marriage rights held strong.
Now, though, aside from legal doubts, objections to Friday’s vote from other quarters are unlikely. The upper chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat, adopted the bill in 2015. So next, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will review the law and sign it. After that, registry offices throughout the country will have three months to implement the law. The first same-sex marriages will likely be celebrated before the end of 2017.
In the meantime, amid the unrelenting Friday drizzle, hundreds of LGBT activists celebrated in front of the chancellery, cheering what Family Minister Katarina Barley called a “victory for love.”
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: email@example.com.