Last week, the German Bundestag passed a law introducing same-sex marriage. On the last day of the parliamentary session before the summer recess and the general election in September, parliamentarians from all parties voted in favour of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, by a margin of 393-226 votes. After many years in which the conservative CDU/CSU parties had blocked such a decision, party leader and chancellor Angela Merkel paved the way for this historic vote less than a week ago, when she made it clear in an interview that she would not whip her party to vote against the legislation. How did this come about? How did the CDU/CSU position itself regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage in the past and why did Merkel decide to finally accept the inevitable?
Germany today is seen as one of the gay-friendliest countries in the world. However, homosexuality was illegal until 1968/1969 and the age of consent was only equalised and same-sex activities fully legalised in 1994, when the infamous Paragraph 175 was repealed. In 2001, "registered life-partnerships" or civil partnerships were introduced by the social democratic-green coalition government and over the next 15 years many laws were gradually and slowly changed to equalise the rights of those in heterosexual marriages and homosexual civil partnerships.
Most of the opposition to progressive legislation on gay rights was to be found in the CDU/CSU parties. As the leading conservative parties, the “Christian Democratic Union” and the Bavarian “Christian Social Union” have dominated German politics since the establishment of democracy after the Second World War. The CDU/CSU’s brand of conservatism was and is firmly influenced by continental European Christian democracy and thus a strong social conservatism. They therefore support traditional ideas of marriage and family, firmly based on both Catholic and Lutheran teachings.
When civil partnerships were introduced in 2001, the CDU/CSU group in parliament – under the leadership of Angela Merkel – unanimously voted against it. The CSU-government of the state of Bavaria and two other CDU-led states even took the fight against the new legislation to the German constitutional court. They argued that civil unions were unconstitutional and in violation of Article 6 of the Basic Law, which states that “Marriage and the family shall enjoy the special protection of the state.” Whilst the court ruled in favour of civil partnerships, it also stressed that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.
After Merkel won the election in 2005, her conservative-led governments allowed only incremental changes when it came to equal rights for same-sex partnerships, frequently being forced by the courts to do so. She and her party remained staunchly opposed to gay marriage and prevented her coalition partners – the social democrats and later the liberal FDP – from introducing it. During the election campaign in 2013 when asked about her views on the issue she reiterated her opposition whilst awkwardly failing to make a good case for her cause. However, Merkel’s modernisation of the CDU, moving the party to the political centre ground, also meant giving up opposition to civil unions and gradual acceptance of equality with marriages.
2012 saw a group of 13 CDU members of parliament publicly support the idea of the same – more favourable – taxation regulations for same-sex unions as traditional marriages enjoyed. And whereas the “Wilde 13”, as they became known (meaning wild, but also bold or boisterous), did not win the backing of a majority of delegates at that year’s party conference, this certainly was a crucial step towards more liberal positioning of the party on gay issues.
Following the initiative of the “Wilde 13”, the CDU/CSU recalibrated their stance again in the following years. Full equality of marriages and civil unions would be accepted, with only two legal distinctions: firstly, the term “marriage”, based on traditional Christian institutions and therefore not open to fundamental redefinitions by the state, and secondly adoption rights, viewed critically due to possible negative effects for the children’s well-being. It was this softening of the conservatives’ position on gay rights that then allowed more liberal members of the CDU/CSU to come out and openly back same-sex marriage.
The CDU’s gradual liberalisation of views on homosexuality and same-sex relationships is very much in line with general trends in German society. Opinion polls have shown rising support for gay marriage over the last 15 years, with at least two-thirds of Germans and a majority of supporters of all parties – the CDU und CSU included – now in favour. And as Jeremy Cliffe rightly points out, it is one of Merkel’s strengths to always find the perfect moment to adopt a new policy stance given the public mood at the time.
Angela Merkel’s interview at the beginning of last week therefore was the culmination of a very long process of gradual liberalisation of her own and her party’s views on same-sex relationships. Her new positioning was brought about by a mixture of factors all pointing her towards a more modern approach: her own slowly shifting attitudes, growing support in her party, pressure from the public and political opponents as well as her find-tuned political antennae telling her that a new approach was needed.
In typical Merkel fashion, she went for the middle ground: making the introduction of same-sex marriage possible by allowing an unwhipped ‘vote of conscience’, but also voting against it herself; defending a traditional, religious definition of marriage, whilst supporting adoption by gay and lesbian couples; keeping her conservative base on her side, whilst at the same time showing liberals and liberal conservatives that she would not block progress. The question for the future is how the CDU/CSU will manage to reconcile their traditional values with the realities of a modern, liberal society.