Angela Merkel has opened the way for gay marriage to be legalised in Germany after she called for a free vote in parliament on the issue.
The surprise announcement represents a major U-turn for the German chancellor, who has previously opposed gay marriage, citing concerns for children.
A vote could now be held as soon as next week. A majority of MPs are believed to be in favour of legalisation.
Ms Merkel described her change of heart in terms of a Damascene conversion. She spoke of a “life-changing experience” when she met a lesbian couple in her parliamentary constituency who have adopted eight children.
But sceptics suggested the timing may also have something to do with the coming German elections in September. Ms Merkel’s chief rival, the Social Democrats (SPD), has pledged to legalise gay marriage, and opinion polls show more than 80pc of Germans are in favour.
While civil partnerships have been available to homosexual couples in Germany since 2001, gay marriages are not recognised by the state.
Opposition from the conservative wing of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) has been the main roadblock to legalisation.
The chancellor chose the unlikely venue of a live event hosted by the women’s magazine ‘Brigitte’ on Monday night to announce what amounted to a small political bombshell.
“I want to change the discussion to a decision of conscience, rather than something I can direct with a whipped vote,” she said.
“If the state gives a homosexual couple children to take care of, I can no longer argue this issue simply on the question of child welfare. These are issues that greatly concern me.”
She called for “respect for those for whom it is hard to make such a decision”.
Ms Merkel’s move wrongfooted the SPD, which has made a pledge to legalise gay marriage a central plank of its election manifesto.
Martin Schulz, the SPD leader and Ms Merkel’s main challenger, tried to regain the initiative by calling for a vote before the end of the current parliament.
“Angela Merkel made a move yesterday and we are taking her at her word,” he said. “The change of heart should be acted on this week.” (© Daily Telegraph, London)