Ruling German Coalition Considers Granting Equal Tax Rights to Same-Sex Partnerships

As one of the first countries worldwide, Germany introduced gay civil partnerships (“eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaften”) in 2001, granting same-sex couples similar rights to their married heterosexual counterparts. The new legislation meant that same-sex life-partners could no longer not be considered next of kin. They are now entitled to receive information about their partner in an emergency and can no longer be turned away from their hospital bedside. Being “verpartnert”, to use the neologism which was quickly coined, also makes it easier for gays and lesbians to leave their estate to their partner when they die.

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But two big differences still remain, making the so-called “Homo-Ehe” (gay marriage) not quite a “real” marriage, with exactly the same rights and advantages that heterosexual married couples enjoy.

First of all, homosexual couples, despite being allowed to raise children, biological or adopted, do not have the right to adopt as couples. Equal parenting rights are not granted to both partners.

Second of all, civilly partnered couples do not enjoy to a special tax break referred to as “Ehegatten-Splitting”. Currently, married couples – irrespective of whether they have children – can save taxes by declaring a joint income and applying for a low tax code for the higher earning partner (usually the husband). This rule has long been at the centre of heated debate but it has so far resisted all attempts at having it abolished. Now, an initiative supported by politicians from both the Christian Democrats (CDU, Angela Merkel’s party) and their junior coalition partner the Free Democrats (FDP), has been launched to give homosexual couples access to Ehegatten-Splitting. Supporters include Family Minister Kristina Schröder (CDU) and Vice Chancellor and Leader of the FDP Philipp Rösler. Unsurprisingly, critics have commented on the bad timing of raising this in the middle of the holiday season. However, one major opponent, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), has already found time away from the beach to voice his strong disapproval and reject the initiative.

Opponents of equal rights for same-sex couples usually refer to a clause in the German constitutional law, the “Grundgesetz”, which guarantees special support and protection for families. However, the definition of what constitutes a family is an evolving concept, and conservative critics may soon find that by challenging the right of same-sex couples to gain access to the same privileges that heterosexual marriages enjoy, they are clinging to an outdated and fundamentally discriminatory idea.

Click here to read a report by the Süddeutsche Zeitung and here for a Deutschlandlandfunk commentary.

German Has a New Word: “Dänenampel”

Yesterday’s regional elections in Germany’s nothernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein, produced a number of surprising results – and a new word, the “Dänenampel” (Danish traffic light).

The ruling coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Liberals (FDP), who had been in the difficult position of trying to run a state with a precarious one-seat-majority, lost the election – or did they? The CDU only fared 0.7% worse than at the 2009 polls, securing a total of 30.8% on Sunday. And while their junior partner, the FDP,  lost a substantial 6.7% of the vote, the party still sees it fit to celebrate the fact that they managed to cross the compulsory 5% threshold to enter parliament – and comfortably so. Nationally, the Liberals are currently so violently unpopular that not having been kicked out of yet another Landtag (regional parliment) can indeed be considered a success and their result of 8.2% seems quite respectable.

With the current regional government losing support, Germany’s second major party, the Social Democrats (SPD), managed to increase their vote by a satisfying 5%, putting them behind the CDU by the incredibly narrow margin of 0.4%.

This very tight outcome now means that whichever of the two major parties, CDU or SPD,  first manages to form a coalition will run Schleswig-Holstein for the next four years. This situation puts the spotlight on the various smaller parties. The FDP’s significant losses mean that the current coalition cannot be renewed, or at least not without taking a third partner onboard.

The fragmented result of the election indicate that quite a few combinations would be possible. The third biggest party are currently Die Grünen (The Green Party) who did well with a result of just over 13%. They would most likely be interested in entering into a coalition with the SPD – but that would only give the two parties a combined share of just under 45% of seats in the Landtag in Kiel. They would be well advised to look for a third partner. And they are unlikely to find a coalition partner towards the left of the political spectrum.

Die Linke, a Socialist party to the left of the SPD, failed to clear the 5% hurdle, making space for the Piratenpartei (Pirate Party), a conglomorate of independent leftist thinkers and internet activists with strong links to the Occupy movement. The Pirate Party recently regrouped at their national party conference and did impressively well at this regional election, securing the same number of votes as the much more established FDP, one of Germany’s oldest political parties. But it is uncertain if the Pirates with their taste for anarchy are ready to enter government, even at regional level, and it is unlikely that the more traditional parties would currently be prepared to invite them into a coalition.

All in all, the current unresolved situation may just turn out to be the big opportunity a unique national minority party has been waiting for. The Südschleswiger Wählerverband (South Schleswig Voter Federation) represents the Danish and Frisian minorities in Schleswig, the northern part of the region which borders on Denmark. They are protected by special legislation, which exempts them from the 5%-rule and guarantees them a number of seats in parliament proportionate to the election result. They have been gaining support in recent years and they did well on Sunday, securing 4.6% of the vote, making them a potentially attractive junior partner. If negotiations are successful, the SSW could enter regional government for the first time in their history – and could add to the German vocabulary at the same time.

In German, political coalitions consisting of three partners are referred to as “Ampeln” (traffic lights), because they combine three different party colours. Only the (usually unlikely) coalition of SPD (red), FDP (yellow), and Greens forms a conventional “Ampel”. If the SSW were to reach an agreement with the SPD and the Green Party, the result would be red, blue and green – or a “Dänenampel” to use the quickly coined new term which has been hitting the headlines and is trending on Twitter.

It remains to be seen if the Danes really will be part of Schleswig-Holstein’s new government, but they have already made their entry into the German language.