Germany told to step up fight against gay discrimination

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Infringement proceedings begun against Germany over Berlin’s failure to bring provisions on equal treatment of gay and lesbian partnerships in line with EU directives on the issue are going down badly with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Vladimír Špidla, EU commissioner for employment, social affairs and equal opportunities, has started an infringement procedure against Germany and eleven other member states for failing to implement EU equal opportunities legislation correctly. 

In an 11-page letter sent to the German government on 31 January, the Commissioner asks for higher standards on the following issues: 

  • Better job protection  for people with disabilities.
  • Liability of employers in cases of discrimination. German employers have to pay damages to workers complaining about discrimination in less than ten percent of all cases.
  • Special rights for religious communities. Churches can currently insist upon only hiring staff who are members of their own religious community.
  • Equal rights for homosexual couples. The “registered lifetime partnership” which gays and lesbians can enter into does not bestow the same privileges as marriage, which remains an option available to heterosexual couples only. For example, it does not offer officials the same entitlement to higher pay as under heterosexual marriages and people living in such partnerships are not entitled to receive part of their partner’s pension when he or she dies.

All four issues are contentious for the Christian Democrats (CDU) and in particular with their Bavarian branch, the Christian Social Party (CSU). The group formed by the two parties (CDU-CSU) is the senior partner in Angela Merkel’s ‘grand coalition’. 

Anti-discrimination legislation touches on the fragile balance within Merkel’s coalition: The Social Democrats, the junior partner in the government, and the social wing of Merkel’s own CDU are both favourable toward stricter standards, while those in Merkel’s party who chiefly support business interests are opposed to more obligations for employers and higher risks in cases of infringement. 

The Christian-Conservative wing of the party, which is particularly strong in Bavaria, is opposed to touching upon Christian churches’ privileges, including tax collection, which other religious communities – including the more than three million Muslims – do not benefit from. Most Christian Democrats already considered existing German legislation on anti-discrimination as a step too far. 

Peter RamsauerCSU (Bavarian Christian-Social) group whip in the Bundestag, is quoted in the Tagesspiegel newspaper as saying that Špidla "obviously hasn't got a clue about German ideas with respect to subsidiarity," the EU principle that government power ought to reside at the lowest feasible level. Ramsauer added: "While we are talking about susidiarity control, Špidla does the blatant opposite." Ramsauer announced his party in the Bundestag's plans to tie ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon to a resolution on subsidiarity control.  

Markus Söder, Bavarian minister for European affairs and from the same party as Ramsauer, said that tightening German anti-discrimination law was "not feasible in Bavaria". 

Wolfgang Bosbach, vice-whip in Merkel's CDU group, said that his party had already had difficulty agreeing over the existing legislation. 

Green MP Volker Beck, a prominent gay activist, said that "it's high time that the registered life-time partnership be put on the same level with marriage in terms of taxation law and payments for officials". 

Left-wing MP Barbara Höll said: "The government has more than deserved to be slapped for the anti-discrimination law [...] It's a pity that the EU is needed in order to make the government heed to justified criticism of the anti-discrimination law. We have repeatedly criticised this law and fully share Špidla's criticism."

Germany's "General Law on Equal Treatment", which entered into force in August 2006, transposes four EU directives on non-discrimination: 

It aims to bring legislation in line with Article 13 of the EU Treaty, which stipulates that the EU "may take appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation".

  • The German government has to respond to Špidla's letter before the end of March 2008
  • The Commissioner will, before June 2008, look into a complaint by German disability organisations concerning unequal treatment of people with disabilities by financial service institutions. 

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