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Will Merkel shift on gay marriage?

Michaela Küfner ss
June 27, 2017

Angela Merkel has said she wants same-sex marriage to become a "decision of conscience," not a party-political issue in Germany. The feature-length interview was supposed to show the chancellor's more private side.

Berlin "Brigitte Live" Talk mit Angela Merkel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

This is as close as anyone can get to the German Chancellor: Angela Merkel live on stage at Berlin's intimate Gorki Theatre - a five-minute walk away from her Berlin residence. She was interviewed by two editors of one of Germany's bestselling women's magazines, "Brigitte."

It was an eventful evening: the audience learned a lot about the Chancellor, including how Merkel thinks that her overnight decision to end nuclear power in Germany was the bravest decision she ever had to take, but also how she feels happy that it is no longer her hair-do that is making headlines but rather her policies.

Throughout the entire 90 minutes of the TV interview the German chancellor showed the kind of wit and sense of humor that the people who know her personally have always reported; this interview was a rare opportunity for everyday Germans to also get to know her like this, up close and personal. In many ways, the interview could not have been more candid.

"Humor is important in politics. I laugh at least once every day, otherwise I cannot do this job," she said, adding that she would "never allow people to take away my holiday from me."

Angela Merkel lacht
Image: Getty Images/AFP/O. Andersen

Intimate confessions of a world leader

For instance, when asked how she met her husband Merkel simple said: "At work" - much to the disappointment of those in the audience seeking a more romantic narrative. And when it comes to her workout routine, Merkel admitted to the audience that she was "more of a yoga type than a jogger." When asked whether she was vain, she simply replied: "of course I think about what I wear because one doesn't want to be a disgrace to one's counterpart."

Those weren't the only revelations of the night; throughout the evening, the audience also learned that Merkel has no Twitter account and only keeps around 100 numbers stored in her mobile phone. And she checks for specks of dust on her wine glasses before she welcomes guests over for dinner.

However, the chancellor is likely to have little to no time left for entertaining between now and the German elections in September.

Merkel's Christian Democrats are leading in the opinion polls and are to present their election program next Monday. It will contain "all the topics that you would expect from the party," she said.

To shake or not to shake - Merkel's first meeting with US President Trump featured some awkward moments
To shake or not to shake - Merkel's first meeting with US President Trump featured some awkward momentsImage: Reuters/J. Ernst

No poker face

Merkel also recounted the story of her first meeting with US President Donald Trump and the lead-up to that spectacularly awkward moment when she prompted him to shake hands - and Trump simply failed to react. Merkel said that when she later asked Trump about the incident he apparently told her that he had been "under the impression that he had already shaken my hand twice - which was true," Merkel recalled.

She then debunked the idea that the facial expression she pulled afterwards was a direct reaction to the incident; Merkel said she had simply "given up" on trying to pull a pokerface in such situations.

"I simply can't do it - that was always my problem in school," she said.

On a more serious point in relation to the US, Merkel said "As Europeans it's our duty to take responsibility, and no longer completely rely on the US," she said.

Friends and enemies

Merkel was also asked whether she preferred to surround herself with the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who appear to share much of her values as opposed to Russia's Putin or the US' Trump, to which she replied: "I don't surround myself [with them], but naturally I keep in touch with them."

The interview showed more of Merkel's private side instead of dwelling on her political agenda
The interview showed more of Merkel's private side instead of dwelling on her political agendaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

"It is also my role to understand the way my counterpart thinks," Merkel explained while admitting that some of her counterparts were more pleasant that others.

All things considered, Merkel came across as comfortable with herself, and she has good reason to feel that way. Her only real opponent in the race for German chancellor is Social Democrat Martin Schulz, who recently accused Merkel of launching an "assault on democracy" alleging she was discouraging political debate in the run-up to the election.

Merkel - who has a healthy lead in the opinion polls - told the audience that she simply ignores such comments, implying that they should too.

A decision of conscience

With just a few minutes left for questions from the audience, a gay man challenged the chancellor on the issue of same-sex marriage: He said that he wanted to know when he would finally be allowed to refer to his registered partner as "my husband."

Merkel replied that she had noticed that all other parties in the Bundestag were in favor of same-sex marriage, and that the idea of gay marriage enjoyed widespread support among German voters. And then she dropped an unexpected political bombshell: Merkel said she "hopes" that the debate will shift "into the direction of a decision of conscience."

In non-political speak this mean that there could soon be a vote in the Bundestag without party whip control on the issue, suggesting that same-sex marriage may only be months away from becoming a legal reality in Germany.

Merkel's change of approach

But that wasn't the only sign of the seismic shift in her leadership style on display: just before the end of the interview, a young migrant from Afghanistan asked the chancellor why his asylum claim was taking so long. It is a touchy subject for Merkel.

Almost two years ago to the day a Palestinian teenage girl by the name of Reem broke into tears when the German chancellor explained to her that she may have to leave Germany when she asked a similar question. Merkel then explained that there were thousands of cases like hers, and that she could make no exceptions. It was a PR disaster that went viral, often cited as evidence for Merkel's alleged lack of human touch.

The German chancellor made sure this embarrassment would not be repeated tonight: Merkel asked the young man to give her his name so she could see "whether she could speed things up a bit."

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