- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2006

BERLIN — Ursula von der Leyen, a medical doctor and the mother of seven, wants Germans to have more babies.

Since taking the family affairs portfolio in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, she has been making proposals that have put the family high on Germany’s political agenda.

Her calls for free child care and extensive tax breaks for families with small children have put the spotlight on Germany’s low birthrate.

The Federal Statistics Office said yesterday that Germany’s population fell for a third straight year in 2005, adding impetus to the new minister’s determination to halt the decline by encouraging families to have more children.

The data show the number of Germans has fallen by 3.2 million in the past 33 years, a decline masked until recently by the flow of immigrants.

In a country where large families are now seen as an oddity — partly in reaction to the Nazis’ pressure to procreate — Mrs. von der Leyen’s costly pro-family plans have dominated the headlines this year.

Determined to overhaul Germany’s child-care system and end the frosty attitude toward families, Mrs. von der Leyen sparked a debate by urging states and communities to slash or even eliminate preschool-care charges that far exceed university fees.

“I am in the middle of a storm now, but you can be sure I will stay the course,” she said at a recent press conference.

Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Social Democrat partners are now competing for votes by offering more help for families in the run-up to three state elections in the spring.

The government pledged in November to expand preschool care in the next four years for children age 3 and under, to give parents with new babies generous financial aid to stay at home for one year, and to give tax breaks for day-care costs.

Other European nations are prescribing similar incentives.

More than 600,000 Italian newborns will receive a letter from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in the next week welcoming them into the world as Italian citizens and telling their parents how to receive a 1,000 euro “baby bonus” from the state. Like Germany, Italy’s birthrate has plummeted.

Political opponents accuse Mr. Berlusconi of campaign trickery in the run-up to the April 9 elections, using the letter to evade campaign laws limiting his time on television.

“Best wishes for your arrival; do you know that the budget has put aside 1,000 euros for you?” Mr. Berlusconi writes in the letter sent to babies born in 2005.

He signs off: “Big Kiss, Silvio Berlusconi.”

Mrs. von der Leyen, whose conservative father was for many years state leader in Lower Saxony, has a tough task ahead.

Full-time motherhood, a tradition in Germany, remains a cherished ideal for many, though it is 70 years since Adolf Hitler had the idea of awarding medals to the most prolific mothers.

Today, German women find it hard to raise children and pursue a career at the same time. A law scrapped only in the 1970s even allowed a husband to have his wife fired from her job by saying she was neglecting her family.

Mothers who swap diapers for careers are still disparaged as “raven mothers” — leaving their children alone in a cold nest. Studies show one-third of German women think working mothers can’t have a warm, stable relationship with their children.

There is also an acute shortage of facilities. In western Germany, there were three day-care places for every 100 children under 3 in 2002, the last year for which data are available.

While Mrs. von der Leyen’s demand that child-care fees that can reach $4,500 a year be scrapped was welcomed by all political parties and cheered by parents, the local authorities who would have to pay for child care from their budgets said “no.”

“Free child care might be a nice idea,” said Stephan Articus, head of the association of German municipalities. “But we simply don’t have the [money] needed.”

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