March 5. 2024. 7:59

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The Brief – Germany is quietly going progressive

Up to six people may soon enter an alternative to marriage in Germany, a ‘civil union of mutual legal responsibility’ – just one example of how the country’s coalition government has been quietly pushing the boundaries of social change.

David Cameron had little to be proud of by the end of his reign as British prime minister. With his legacy of austerity disgraced, and the label of Brexit-enabler firmly stuck to him, Cameron has often named Britain’s social liberalisation, in particular, the introduction of gay marriage, “one of my proudest achievements”.

The experience could soon be shared by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ill-fated ‘traffic-light’ coalition.

Attempts to supercharge the country’s green transition and ailing economy appear mostly doomed, with every new initiative sparking infighting and ending up being watered down.

But in liberalising the country’s stuffy social policies, still covered in the moralistic dust of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic government, the ‘traffic light’ is quietly making progress.

Germany’s ban on providing information on abortion? Scrapped.

The strict immigration code and naturalisation requirements? Liberalised.

Self-identification for transgender people and the legalisation of marijuana? Set to be passed.

Odd name constructions like ‘Fräulein Müller-Obermann’ will also soon be confined to being the butt of Nazi jokes, as Germans are finally allowed to combine last names freely and unhyphenated, like most of their European peers.

Up to six people may enter such a civil companionship, which allows members to take on legal guardianship and responsibility for each other in a toned-down alternative to marriage.

Naturally, the justice ministry emphasises that this is directed at friends, widowed elders, or single parents supporting each other – God forbid that it should be seen as an enabler for polyamory.

But technically, the new union is also open to up to six romantic partners, though the tangible benefits are nebulous and almost negligent compared to marriages.

Still, at its core, the concept is deeply progressive, as it creates a new legal form of partnership beyond a classic marriage.

The progressive turn marks an achievement in that Germany is catching up with the EU mainstream.

The liberalisation of naming laws and self-identification “were overdue”, Saskia Lettmaier, a legal scholar at the University of Kiel, told Euractiv, pointing to the trends and realities in other European countries that served as models for the reforms.

Have the culture wars bypassed Germany?

What is most remarkable, though, is that a coalition so prone to infighting has managed to smoothly pass laws that would have sparked culture wars elsewhere without significant backlash.

Even more so, it is the FDP, otherwise known throughout Europe for its inclination to block green and sustainability legislation, that has been in charge of most reforms.

FDP Justice Minister Marco Buschmann has efficiently railroaded bill after bill in avowedly harmonious collaboration with his coalition partners.

Lettmaier noted indeed that even controversial measures such as self-ID “probably have long had a solid backing from German society”.

The cultural fault lines certainly run elsewhere than in countries like the UK, where government and opposition clashed over the utterance “what is a woman” in parliament this week.

Moreover, anyone who has been to Berlin – or a nudist beach in Southern France – knows that there is a surprising amount of countercultural chaos behind the orderly German facade.

Case in point: The outwardly conservative Buschmann also moonlights as DJ MBSounds on SoundCloud.

But there is also a simpler explanation: Social policy is more or less the only area where the coalition partners agree, with SPD, Greens, and FDP all being liberal-leaning.

Compared to David Cameron, who had to push gay marriage through against strong resistance from the conservative Tories, Germany’s legal liberalisation was a cakewalk for Scholz’ coalition.

Perhaps the ‘traffic light’ should strive to finally show the same grace and efficiency in areas where they disagree. It might spare its protagonists from Cameron’s fate.

The Roundup

A last-minute deal in Berlin has paved the way for the approval of the EU’s 2040 target of reducing heavy-duty vehicle emissions by 90% in exchange for a clause dedicated to vehicles running on e-fuels.

The Russia-initiated United Nations Cybercrime Convention was due to conclude on Friday but lack of consensus on the scope and terminology has prompted civil society to call for the rejection of the Convention in its current form.

The German government is looking beyond Europe to supply hydrogen in coming years and has agreed on a task force with Algeria to facilitate the framework for imports.

The Council and the European Parliament agreed on Thursday on the proposal to phase out mercury in dental amalgam completely as part of the commitments from the EU’s Zero Pollution Ambition.

If you’re interested in EU defence funds and programmes, check out our detailed explainer.

Thousands of tractors took to the Polish streets in a huge nationwide demonstration on Friday as local farmers, inspired by their colleagues from other EU countries, resumed their protest against the European Green Deal and the imports from Ukraine.

Sustainability measures are necessary but “forcefully” imposed on farmers while other economic sectors – such as tourism – are left untouched, a representative of young farmers in Spain’s Catalonia told Euractiv, warning that the far-right wants to be the voice of neglected rural areas in Europe.

For more policy news, don’t miss this week’s Tech Brief, the Economy Brief, and the Agrifood Brief.

Look out for…

  • Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič delivers closing keynote speech at European Conference at Harvard on Sunday.
  • Informal meeting of ministers for development Sunday-Monday