One-year maternity leave for British women?
That's on the cards as European govts go all out to encourage starting families
IN BERN - GERMANY and Britain are leading the European charge to adopt Scandinavian-style family-friendly policies, investing money and resources in a bid to encourage people to have babies.
The moves come as countries across Europe wake up to the fact that they have to do something about the double whammy of low birth rates and a fast-ageing population, which means there will be fewer and fewer working people to shoulder the increasing burden of paying pensions.
In Germany, where official statistics show that only 686,000 babies were born in 2005 while 830,000 people died, the country's Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen - herself a mother of seven - has warned that the country faces the prospect of having to 'turn the lights out'.
Even in Italy, a staunchly Catholic country where birth control has traditionally been shunned, the fertility rate - the average number of babies a woman has in her lifetime - is as low as Germany's 1.34, and far below the replacement level of 2.1.
And while measures such as large-scale immigration could bolster the working population, they are politically controversial and could cause other problems such as poor integration.
In addition, studies show that migrants tend to fall into the host country's birth patterns; it means that bringing foreigners in would only be a short-term solution.
Meanwhile, in countries such as France and Norway where benefits for parents are generous, the fertility rate is closer to the replacement rate.
So in Britain, which last month more than doubled paid maternity leave from 18 to 39 weeks, there are now plans to give new mothers an entire year off by 2010.
Currently, British mothers can get 90 per cent of their salaries for six weeks, followed by a maximum of £112.75 (S$340) a week for the next 33 weeks.
Britain is also considering offering fathers 26 weeks of paternity leave if their partners return to work.
Germany also increased paid maternity leave in January, allowing working mothers to receive 67 per cent of their net monthly salary, up to a maximum of 1,800 euros (S$3,700), for a year after childbirth. Previously German mothers were offered just 14 weeks' leave.
In addition, if the father takes paternity leave for two months after the mother returns to work, payments will continue for another two months, reaching a total maximum of 25,200 euros.
Responding to criticism that the country needed to do more than just throw money at the problem of declining birth rates, the government last month pledged to triple the number of creche places for under three-year-olds.
It is now even debating the possibility of making creche places a legal right for children aged one to three.
Italy, meanwhile, set up a Ministry of Family Policies in March last year and Prime Minister Romano Prodi wants to provide 2,000 euros a year for each child under the age of four, in an expansion of a scheme currently available only to low-income families.
Poland has also started making family-friendly moves, announcing in March plans to spend US$6 billion (S$9 billion).
Among the changes it intends to make are giving mothers 26 weeks of maternity leave, up from the current 18, and introducing tax breaks for families.
It is also planning schemes to get employers to invest in creches and kindergartens.
But even with family-friendly policies, the blend of traditions and changing lifestyles which has resulted in fewer babies may prove hard for Europe to overcome.
In Germany, for example, mothers who return to work soon after childbirth are often labelled as 'Rabenmutters'.
The derogatory term, which literally translates to 'raven mothers', refers to mothers who leave their children before they can fend for themselves.
Because of such a label, increasing numbers of working women prefer not to have children at all, rather than be branded as bad mothers.
And such attitudes are found at the top as well. Saarlands chief of government Peter Muller may have reinforced the stigma faced by working mothers by saying: 'We should not create the impression that child care should normally take place in a creche and that child care at home is only a second-best choice.'