BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel has walked back her opposition to gay marriage, clearing the way for the issue to win approval in the German Parliament without her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) quashing it as a bloc.
The chancellor, who is vying for her fourth term in a September election, said Monday that she would like to see lawmakers vote according to their personal convictions, rather than toeing the party line of the CDU, which has long opposed marriage rights for gay couples. Since 2001, Germany has allowed same-sex couples to register civil partnerships, which afford some of the benefits accruing to married couples.
“I would like to steer the discussion more toward the situation that it will be a question of conscience instead of me forcing something through by means of a majority vote,” said Merkel, who is the daughter of a Protestant pastor.
Her remarks, at an event sponsored by a women’s magazine, signaled markedly better chances for government recognition of full marriage rights. Polls show most Germans support marriage equality.
Merkel's new approach comes amid mounting political pressure from rival federal parties, whose cooperation Merkel may need in forming a governing coalition should she be reelected in the fall. The Green Party has gone so far as to take the matter to court, attempting to force a vote on marriage equality.
Martin Schulz, leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), challenged Merkel on Tuesday to move forward with a vote.
“We believe that one doesn’t have to delay a decision based on conscience,” Schulz told reporters. “It can also be made this week.”
The chairman of the SPD’s parliamentary group, Thomas Oppermann, said he asked Merkel’s party at a coalition breakfast to put marriage on the parliamentary agenda.
Her move was characteristically cautious in not staking out a strong ideological stance. But it could still open her up to criticism from within her own party, or from its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union. Its president, Horst Seehofer, has opposed efforts to modify the group’s stance on gay marriage, at one point promising a “family-oriented offensive.”
Overall, however, Merkel's faction is split. It also includes openly gay members, such as Jens Spahn, an outspoken member of the group's right flank, except on the marriage question.
Merkel said she still considers gay marriage to be “something very individual,” but this represents a softening from prior statements, in which she said she had a “hard time” with the matter.
“For me, personally, marriage is a man and a woman living together,” she said in 2015.
Merkel also said Monday she had rethought the right of same-sex couples to adopt children, an issue with which she once said she had “difficulties.” Explaining her shifting views, she told the story of a lesbian couple in her constituency looking after eight foster children.
Axel Hochrein, a board member of the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany, cheered the chancellor’s statement but said it was long overdue.
“We are happy that this will happen now, but we are not happy about the years of discussions,” Hochrein said. “There has been a majority in Parliament for eight years.”
He said recognizing same-sex marriage would bring Germany in line with its peers, advancing its leadership role in Europe.
Many countries in Western Europe, even historically Catholic ones such as France, protect equal marriage rights, while Germany joins numerous others, such as Italy and Greece, in allowing only some form of civil union. Advocates say Germany's position is notable, though, not just because the country is the largest country in Europe but because it has otherwise embraced progressive causes, from environmental protection to refugee resettlement.
The opening for gay marriage comes on the heels of a vote last week in the German Parliament to annul convictions for homosexual acts under a Nazi-era statute — and to offer financial compensation to roughly 5,000 men who were prosecuted under the law and are still living.
“We’ve now solved two big problems,” Hochrein said, reacting to the events of the past five days. “Rehabilitation of men who suffered under this criminal law and now perhaps opening to gay marriage.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.