After two women filed a complaint over a gay marriage prohibition, an Austrian court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. The court removed a clause from the underlying statute stating that each party in a marriage must be of a different sex. The judges added that homosexuals will be able to marry by the end of 2018. There is however ample time for Austrian politicians to write a new law overriding the court’s decision. If no law is written, the court’s ruling will take effect in a year.
In 2010, Austria permitted same-sex couples to enter civil partnerships, but formal marriages have been forbidden. By the end of 2018, gay couples will still be allowed to join in civil partnerships, a legal status that, according to the judges, has become akin to marriage over the years.
According to a statement from the court, “[T]he distinction between marriage and civil partnership can no longer be maintained today without discriminating against same-sex couples.” The court added that the distinction between partnerships and marriages implies that gay and straight people are not equal in the eyes of the law. Accordingly, straight couples will, by the end of 2018, be allowed to enter civil partnerships as well.
The Arc of History
The court decision marks an important stepping stone in the long arc of history that – since 2001, when the Netherlands became the first country to allow same-sex marriage – has bent toward marriage equality. Not long ago, Germany broke its silence on the issue and permitted gay marriages. And even more recently, Australia legalized gay marriage. Of course, other European countries maintain their ban on same-sex unions. Those countries include: Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania.
The Bad with the Good
On the face of it, the Austrian court’s decision bespeaks a liberalism that is alive and well in the heart of Europe. We would be remiss, however, to ignore some of the conservative counter-movements.
The Conservative People’s Party (CPP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) recently reached a coalition pact, making Austria the only Western European country to have a government partially led by a far-right faction. The CPP was formerly allied with the Social Democrats, but that relationship faltered in May. After the dissipation of the coalition, Austria held a snap election, resulting in the CPP taking control and joining forces with the FPO. This means that the FPO will now take over key cabinet positions, including the interior, foreign and defense ministries.
Upon approving the pact, President Alexander Van der Bellen met with the party leaders: Sebastian Kurz, the new Chancellor and head of CPP, and Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the FPO. Van der Bellen seemed happy with the meeting, saying, “In these talks among other things we agreed it is in the national interest of Austria to remain at the centre of a strong European Union and to actively participate in the future development of the European Union.”
But what does “pro-European” actually entail? In light of recent policy decisions, it would appear that a pro-European stance is tantamount to a stringent anti-migrant position. The new coalition has issued a series of regulations controlling the movement and lives of refugees in Austria. Those entering the country for the first time will have their phones confiscated, and any money will be taken and allegedly used to ameliorate conditions for migrants. Those already living in the country will be cut off from state benefits because, according to the far-right camp, they have not offered anything to the state to deserve any welfare.
Despite these authoritarian measures, the EU is supportive of the new government. Echoing Van der Bellen, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, “I look at the government program and I have reasonable confidence that this will be a pro-European government.” This should be cause for concern, as the FPO has a history of Nazi sympathy and is closely related to Marine Le Pen’s National Front.