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Long German holidays under threat

LONDON, England (CNN) -- When it comes to their Urlaub (holidays), Germans have long enjoyed the best deal in Europe.

While the average amount of paid holiday in the European Union is 26 days, German workers last year enjoyed 31.5 days of vacation, 10 more than their counterparts in the UK and Ireland (and 14 more than the Japanese).

The right to a minumum of 24 days a year paid leave is enshrined in German law, while the country's political leaders have taken a lead in never knowingly passing up the opportunity for a good break.

Helmut Schmidt, chancellor from 1974-82, once took 64-days leave in a single year, while his successor, Helmut Kohl, religiously took a four-week Austrian holiday every summer (as well as a shorter spring break to get his weight down).

With the German economy teetering on the brink of recession, however, and unemployment high, there are signs that such traditionally relaxed attitudes are starting to change.

An indication of the shift came this week when mass-circulation daily newspaper Bild criticised newly married culture minister, Julian Nida-Ruemelin, for taking a seven-week vacation and honeymoon, mostly in Brazil.

Although the government insisted that Nida-Ruemelin was only taking four weeks, and that he would be in telephone contact with officials throughout the period, it did not stop Bild from nicknaming him "Nie-da-Ruemelin" -- "never there Ruemelin."

"In times when many people are fighting for their jobs, such an attitude towards work is a wholly incorrect signal from the Cabinet," Rainer Bruederle of the pro-business Free Democratic Party told Associated Press.

Holiday reduction 'wrong'

The new mood of austerity and self-sacrifice has clearly been sensed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who returned to work this week after just a brief summer holiday, and one which he interrupted midway through to attend the G8 Summit in Genoa.

Not everyone, however, believes that shorter holidays are the answer to a flagging economy.

Union leader Harald Reutter told AP: "People here clearly manage to be productive despite long vacations."

Reducing the amount of holiday would, in his opinion, be "absolutely the wrong thing" at a time of high unemployment.

Whether his sentiments are shared by other union leaders is at present unclear. The spokesman for the umbrella German Union Association is away on holiday and therefore unable to comment.

• German federal government
• German presidency
• German parliament

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