Tuesday, January 03, 2012

While there have always been differences about how proactive government should be, few Europeans question the basic premise of a welfare state

Most Europeans associate democracy with a social safety net
writes Katrin Bennhold in The Female Factor in an International Herald Tribune article in which the German reporter manages to mock "the bellows of nostalgic 'bulldog' conservatives in Britain" while shrugging off memories of World War II as "this fixation with 1945 [which] has long been easy to dismiss as island mentality, empire nostalgia or perhaps compensation for repeated defeats by Germany on the soccer field." (That's the left for you — they hate to be reminded of the good the West has done (and enjoy dismissing memories thereof), but they adore "commemorating", ad infinitum, the West's sins, alleged or otherwise, and even when they are far older, like slavery and colonialism.)

Still, Katrin Bennhold's observations on the differences between Europe's health care systems are interesting, not least because they are based on personal knowledge, i.e., her "recent experience of pregnancy and birth in Europe’s three biggest economies". The most interesting observation? Perhaps the fact (or the alleged fact — I have tended to get skeptical over liberal observations over the years) that the "higher the birthrate, the higher the proportion of women in work — and the degree of state support for working mothers."
While there have always been pronounced differences about how proactive government should be, few Europeans question the basic premise of a welfare state.

… As the past three years of financial and economic strife have made plain, Europe does not have a common narrative for the 21st century. There is no European Union of welfare states, no common philosophy on how to run one’s economy or manage public finances, let alone European public opinion. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to make all Europeans more German have borne some fruit, but also rankled those who felt lectured and stymied.

Partly as a result, nationalism is increasingly prevalent across the 27-country bloc. A familiar fault line has emerged: “The euro crisis has sharpened the focus on old divisions over the role of the state in the economy and in people’s lives,” said Ute Frevert, director of the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

This fault line runs across society. Just how differently the state treats one of the most basic experiences — motherhood — has been plain in my recent experience of pregnancy and birth in Europe’s three biggest economies.

In London, where I just had my second daughter in a public hospital by Caesarean section, I was sent home after three nights. Midwives who were supposed to check up on me and my baby at home in the days after never showed up.

In early 2009, when I had a first Caesarean section in Germany, I was in the hospital for more than a week. Pediatric nurses gave me one-on-one lessons on how to pick up my baby, bathe and even massage her. A specialized physiotherapist exercised with newborns every morning.

Meanwhile in France, where I spent most of my two pregnancies and the time between, I was offered months of physiotherapy to get abdominal muscles back into shape after giving birth.

The differences do not stop at the degree of pampering.

In Britain, more than one midwife evangelized about the benefits of giving birth at home, breast-feeding and drug-free “natural” birth. In France, when I inquired about waiting on an epidural, the doctor brushed me off by saying that 97 percent of French women have epidurals — “and for a good reason.” The same doctor informed me about hormones to stop the milk flow if I preferred not to nurse.

… as Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, chief executive of 20-first, a gender management consultancy, points out: “You can tell the different approaches to motherhood in Europe by looking at birthrates.” The higher the birthrate, the higher the proportion of women in work — and the degree of state support for working mothers.

“There are the countries that get it, like France and the Scandinavian countries, and the ones that don’t, like Germany, which has been losing population since 2003,” Ms. Wittenberg-Cox said.