People dance as they participate in the annual Gay Pride parade in Berlin, Germany on July 23, 2016. In Germany, same-sex couples can become registered partners, but cannot get married.

© 2016 Reuters

UPDATE: On Friday June 30,2017, the German Bundestag (House of Representatives) voted in favor of marriage equality with 393 yes, 226 no and 4 abstentions. Chancellor Angela Merkel voted against the proposal.

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Barring any last minute political surprises, two European Union countries are poised to embrace marriage equality: Germany and Malta.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) party has historically been opposed to same-sex marriage, made a surprising comment this week. At an event in Berlin hosted by a women’s magazine, Chancellor Merkel responded to a question from the audience and said opinion polls show that the vast majority of Germans favor marriage equality. She suggested that a free vote on the matter could be held in the German parliament.

Boris Dittrich, Human Rights Watch LGBT Rights Program advocacy director, with Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta, in Malta in June 2017. 

©2017 Human Rights Watch

In the past, Merkel has said that she sees marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. A “free vote” means that each member of parliament can vote according to conscience, rather than along party lines. Merkel’s party is in coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Its leader, Martin Schulz, immediately responded to Merkel’s remarks by calling for a vote this coming Friday, prior to federal elections that are scheduled for September. If a vote takes place, it is expected to pass, as almost all other political parties represented in the German parliament support gay marriage, and at least a quarter of Merkel’s own party will likely also vote in favor.

Meanwhile in Malta, recently re-elected Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has delivered on his election promise and introduced a bill on marriage equality. The bill, which streamlines marriage legislation including for same-sex marriage, was debated in the Maltese parliament this week. The vote is likely to take place later this week or early next. It is expected to pass with a large majority, as all political parties promised to support gay marriage during the election campaign.

If Germany and Malta do embrace marriage equality, they will become the 23rd and 24th countries globally to do so. The first country to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples was the Netherlands in 2001. Marriage equality legislation has been implemented on almost every continent, for example in South Africa, New Zealand, the United States, and Argentina. Taiwan is expected to become the first country in Asia with equal marriage rights after its Supreme Court found a ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

This week is set to be a landmark week for marriage equality.