World from Berlin: German Conservatives Change Course on Gay Marriage

German conservatives are changing their tune on tax laws relating to same-sex unions. Zoom
DPA

German conservatives are changing their tune on tax laws relating to same-sex unions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats are rapidly changing their approach on same-sex marriage rights and are considering extending marital tax benefits. But some German conservatives remain opposed. Commentators on Monday say the debate could hurt the party in fall elections.

Since Germany's high court strengthened adoption rights for gay couples last week, the move has widely been seen as one that potentially opens the way toward the legalization of gay marriage. Based on the court's reasoning in that case, few can see why it would reject a forthcoming suit that questions the country's unequal tax rates for those in same-sex civil unions.

In response, high-ranking members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union signalled over the weekend that they might preemptively jettison a recent party platform decision to reject equal tax benefits for same-sex couples. But their comments have outraged more conservative members of the CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), who say such a move would threaten fundamental party values.

Conservatives must become "more flexible on equality issues," parliamentary whip for the CDU, Michael Grosse-Brömer, told daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Saturday. In light of the "clear tendency of the Constitutional Court ruling, we should now act as quickly as possible to also implement the necessary constitutional equality."

Volker Kauder, the parliamentary group leader for the CDU and CSU, also backed the change of course in an interview with Welt am Sonntag. "We will naturally implement the decision by the Constitutional Court -- that is now necessary," he said. "Along with that we will look into whether changes to tax law are also necessary."

A Series of Policy U-Turns

According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, concrete plans are indeed underway within the CDU to change the party's family policy. Meanwhile, the pro-business Free Democrats, junior coalition party in Merkel's center-right governing coalition, have also voiced their support for amending the tax law. Were the CDU to move forward with the shift, it would mark just the latest in a series of U-turns undertaken by the party in recent years, including such hot-button issues as atomic energy, military conscription and minimum wage.

Still, a number of conservatives voiced their resistance on Monday. Deputy chairwoman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group Katherina Reiche told daily Bild that she would be pleased "if the same passion exhibited by a small group of same-sex oriented activists were applied to the party's debate about how families can better handle their daily high-wire act."

CDU parliamentarian Erika Steinbach told SPIEGEL ONLINE that "there is no reason to abandon the CDU's position in an exercise of preemptive obedience" to the Constitutional Court. "We should proactively clarify our position and promote it."

While German commentators on Monday agree that Merkel's conservatives have made far too many compromises, many say that they have no choice but to change with the times or get left behind.

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The conservatives' change of heart on gay marriage is similar to that of their junior coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats, on the issue of implementing a minimum wage. Here too, societal realities have forced a governing party to give up what have been unshakeable certainties until now."

"The problem with this coalition is that the consideration of reality often doesn't happen when policies are being formed, but only later in the debate -- and often not until the end. Tax reform, military conscription, atomic energy -- nothing remains of what the CDU and the FDP began with after their election victory in 2009, though there were ample clues that many of their positions were obsolete even then."

"The extent of the center-right coalition's shortcomings is revealed by the fact that there isn't a single issue in domestic discourse on which they hold sway. … This coalition is almost always on the defensive, from family policy to pensions, and social policies to the environment and consumer protection. … A government of constant self-correction isn't just lagging behind its own aspirations. … Such a coalition simply isn't relevant to the times."

SPIEGEL ONLINE columnist Jakob Augstein writes:

"Don't get too excited. The CDU isn't nearly as flexible as Merkel. Resistance to equal rights for homosexuals grows the closer the debate comes to the core of the issue: marriage. But if Merkel truly wants to modernize her conservatives, then Germany must finally open itself to same-sex marriage."

"Instead of continuing this protracted process taking baby steps toward equal rights, the government should take a brave leap forward. We need same-sex marriage. It's already in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland and Denmark. Were the same rules to apply to all couples, there would be no need for a plethora of complicated laws and exceptions -- a forest of regulations that anyway have the goal of ending discrimination between homosexual and heterosexual couples. But that is exactly what the conservatives among the conservatives don't want."

Left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Poor conservatives! Your image of society is being undermined from so many sides that it's like a house infested by termites. Just a nudge could knock down what once seemed so fixed and solid."

"Nothing reveals just how quickly and completely the conservative societal model is collapsing than the debate over same-sex marriage. The revaluation of same-sex relationships has moved forward at a breathtaking pace. … Even the CDU has only a laughable minority who still dare to claim that marriage between a man and a woman is more worthy of protection than one between two men or two women."

"Of all things, it is interestingly the courts, the institutions so highly regarded by conservatives, that are advancing the revolution of social thought. In fact, the decision by the Constitutional Court to enhance the adoption rights of same-sex couples shows that they can no longer find rational arguments for discrimination. That doesn't mean that the whole of society will immediately and enthusiastically support the idea of the state putting children into the care of lesbians or gays. But the verdict clearly shows just how difficult it has become for the opponents of equality to rationally justify their position."

Conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The train has left the station. It's funny, however, that the Constitutional Court is being used as an excuse again. Even Bavaria, as weary as it has become with the federal government, understands that one can't ignore the court's decisions. Yet even eight justices can't change what a governing party does. Nothing need immediately follow their ruling on adoption rights for same-sex couples. Furthermore, they should be able to take a position on equal tax benefits without an eye to the court. No one expects clear positions in an election year, though they probably expect some attention to the supposed voter base."

"One could make the very liberal argument that the state couldn't care less who lives with whom and in what way, regardless of how long-term and responsible it may be. But the state certainly can decide to privilege a certain lifestyle because it finds it best suited to cohesion and survival of the community -- and has done so according to the still valid constitution. It goes without saying that other lifestyles must be respected. But why in the exact same way? They are different, after all."

Mass-circulation daily Bild writes:

"Before the election the CDU wants to clear up a controversial issue: the tax disadvantages of same-sex couples. … The Constitutional Court may end this situation anyhow, so some CDU strategists think they should go ahead and do it themselves."

"The party wants to gain ground with certain sections of big-city voters, but this could backfire. First, the CDU is risking a tough battle with the CSU. And second, by granting same-sex marriage equal status they will lose far more of their Christian-conservative base than any swing voters from the left they might gain."

"The CDU has maneuvered itself into a reform trap. It can only lose."

-- Kristen Allen

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