In Germany, the introduction of Swedish style parental leave [allowing a mother or a father to take 12 months off while still receiving 67% of his or her salary or a maximum of 1,800 euros per month] failed to make an impact on the country’s fertility rate — 1.36 children per woman — which is still one of the lowest in Europe.

From a historical perspective, the reduction of fertility rates in many countries, not least in Europe, is positive news. However, when the fertility rate slumps below the 2.1 children per woman, which is necessary for the ongoing renewal of a society, we should look at the underlying causes. There is no denying that natality is a complex phenomenon, which depends on a multiplicity of individual decisions that are influenced by a number of factors, and in particular by tradition.

US has a higher fertility rate than most European countries

It is hard to argue with the hypothesis which attributes German women’s limited desire to become mothers to a lack of sexual equality. Family policy in what used to be West Germany was highly conservative. The law identified fathers as providers, and for women, giving birth amounted to a de facto obligation to exit the labour market. Now the level of state support for children is increasing, but working mothers still have to contend with a hostile social context and a lack of infrastructure. The term "Rabenmutter" (bad mother) is still used to stigmatise women who put their children in the care of others so that they can continue working.

The pattern becomes even clearer in the rest of Western Europe. On the one hand, in the same category as Germany, we have low fertility rate countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy, where the traditional assumption that mothers ought to be housewives prevents women from combining their working and family lives. And when they are faced with a choice between children and work, work usually wins. On the other, we have states with relatively high fertility rates, like France and Scandinavian countries. Although there is some regional variation, these countries are mainly characterised by the presence of infrastructure which encourages women to have children, and in particular extensive networks of creches.

At the same time, we can also contest the idea that political measures to promote equality are a necessary condition for higher fertility rates in wealthy and developed countries: for example, the United States has a higher rate than most European countries. And many countries of the former eastern bloc are reporting very low figures even though they have long tradition of working women and state support for children.

Tomorrow’s economy will also depend on our level of reproduction

However, notwithstanding these counter examples, all the indications are that a reinforcement of sexual equality and social security systems which facilitate a dual role for women would be beneficial in Europe. Most people want to have children and a society that does not accommodate this aspiration runs the risk of losing faith in its own future and compromising its economic development. Even if the United States has managed to combine a high percentage of women in the labour force with a high fertility rate while refraining from public investment in child care facilities, the American model is hardly appropriate for Europe, where there is a strong tradition of collective solutions for societal problems.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament’s highly detailed plan to extend maternity leave throughout the EU was rejected by most member states. No doubt national leaders were right to argue that it was unrealistic to widen Europe’s mandate in the field of family and equality policy in the midst of the euro crisis. It is also important to bear in mind that by itself a guaranteed minimum for parental leave is not enough to create a society that is more favourable to families. But notwithstanding both of these objections, tomorrow’s economy will depend not only on our level of production, but also on our level of reproduction.