6th Dec 2023

Europe needs family-friendly policies, says German minister

Europe should focus more on family-friendly policies to tackle the demographic crisis but should not take power from national governments in this area, German family minister Ursula von der Leyen, the initiator of the European Alliance for Families, has said.

Mrs von der Leyen, herself a mother of seven children, wants the newly emerging alliance - officially recognised by the member states in their March summit conclusions - to provide a platform for exchanging views rather than as something that might lead to further harmonisation of social policies across Europe.

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"I don't think that we should transfer social competences from the national area to Europe because we would only be complicating things but let's not underestimate the power of European discussions and their influence on national policies," the minister told EUobserver.

In her own country, Mrs von der Leyen (48) has initiated several government projects aimed at making it possible for women to link their family life with careers - particularly by boosting childcare.

She aims to secure enough public money to triple the number of daycare places in Germany to 750,000 by 2013. At the same time, she has created a new financial scheme that provides mothers or fathers two-thirds of their last net paycheck, up to €1,800 for up to a year.

Her reforms have provoked an internal debate between traditionalists and moderate members of the German conservative party.

Mrs von der Leyen believes that a similar debate is needed at the European level, arguing "We have differences in terms of social and family policies but the consequences of demographic trends in Europe are pretty much the same everywhere."

According to the European Commission, fertility rates on the continent have fallen by 45 percent since the 1960s. In 2003, the average birth rate in 25 member states was 1.48, far below the 2.1 figure estimated as necessary to sustain the present level of population excluding migration.

The average age of women's first marriage rose five years to 28 while some women choose to have children later or have less children due to economic pressures, according to EU surveys.

"With the alliance we want to discuss what young people in Europe need to follow their career and at the same time raise children, to distinguish from previous practices what was good and [what was] harmful for families," Mrs von der Leyen pointed out.

"We will mainly focus on assembling good practices and discuss these issues also with business representatives as it also has a direct impact on them whether a country has family friendly policies."

She argued that in some cases west Europeans could learn from central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004, "just like we learnt from eastern Germany about the benefits of extended childcare. But at the same time, we shouldn't go too much into the past in this exercise but rather look for new solutions."

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