On 15 May in Berlin, German chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling grand coalition of conservatives and social democrats approved the plan to treble the number of nurseries for children from the current level of 250, 000 to 750, 000, by 2013. Five more years and half a million more places would reach one-third of Germany's children under the age of three (35%) in the state nursery. The EU commission has been critical of the lack of nursery places and restrictive opening times of German kindergartens - the majority for example shut at lunchtime.
Super mum-of-seven minister heads the deal
Ursula von der Leyen, Merkel's minister for family and youth, is promoting the reform to allow Germany to 'reach European standards'. Government figures show that 13.5% of children under three attend nurseries, compared with the European average of 35%. In the west, these children are cared for by their parents, whilst 20% of children in eastern Germany have nursery places. The reform also plans to reverse a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman - one of the lowest in Europe after Spain (1.3) and Poland (1.2), who scrape the bottom of the 2005 Eurostat survey. The French and Irish lead the field with 1.9 and over.
'30% of married couples in Germany have no children,' exclaimed von der Leyen in a January 2006 interview with Stern magazine. 'That is the highest percentage in the world. In France it is only nine per cent!' With seven children and two degrees herself, von der Leyen is the perfect example of a woman who can combine work and child care. 'When working women have children, they inevitably have to brake their career for a few years,' she said this year in Der Spiegel's August issue of 'The Longing for Family'. 'This hinders their self-advancement.' The reform would also encourage professionals-cum-mothers to work again after childbirth. Currently, only a third of women with children under the age of three are engaged in full-time employment. (Less than 60% of women in general are employed.)
The CDU minister's popularity rose when she first announced her plans. But it was the conservatives in her own party who criticised the reform as a break with traditional family values. In their eyes, women who combine career and child care are 'raven mothers' (Rabenmütter), forcing children out of the nest at a very early stage.
During a coalition summet last May Edmund Stoiber, outgoing conservative minister-president of Bavaria, proposed some sort of income support for childcare. Parents who care for their children at home would benefit of 150 euros monthly.
'This would only exacerbate the vicious circle in which children are confined to home, deprived of early training, linguistic improvement, exercise, and limits on television viewing,' said von der Leyen, vehemently criticising this suggestion in Die Welt at the end of July. 'Just so that their parents can add another 150 euros to their family budget.'
Nonetheless, the CDU see these subsidies as 'compensation' for those families that won't benefit from the nursery expansion. 'Parents should be free to choose how they want to raise their children,' said Johannes Singhammer, family affairs spokesman for the conservative union of the Christian Democrats and Christian Social Democrats, in the same Die Welt interview. 'We should not force a certain style on them. If parents wish to raise their children at home, they should be assisted with subsidies. Polls show that 70% of the population supports the idea of such subsidies. To make sure neglect and abuses won't happen, we will carry out a careful home investigation.'
Von der Leyen's attack on subsidies also attracted criticism from Catholic groups. 'Nurseries should not be built at the expense of family life. They should not be financed by reducing payments or services for married couples or families,' a spokesperson for the Family Association of Catholics said for the German national news agency (DPA).
After negotiations between the coalition and federal states in August, SPD finance minister Peer Steinbrück and von der Leyen finally announced their agreement on the creche-issue. By 2008 the coalition will give a billion euros to create 500, 000 new creche facilities. The price will climb to four billion by 2013. From 2013 German families will have the legal right to a creche spot. Meanwhile Stoiber's 'income support' proposal, mocked by the Greens as a 'Herdprämie' - literally, an award for staying at home and looking after the herd - is yet to be adopted.