European Union governments on Monday rejected a hotly contested plan to offer new mothers five months of fully paid maternity leave.

Social affairs ministers from the 27-nation bloc considered a European Parliament proposal to raise maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks was excessive, said Belgian Employment Minister Joelle Milquet, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

"The very, very great majority of member states consider that parliament went too far in offering to extend maternity leave to 20 weeks, with 100 percent pay - that is not a basis for negotiation," she said after talks that considered the proposal for the first time.

The European Parliament's October proposal also gave fathers across the bloc two weeks to spend time with their newborn.

Conservative parliamentarians as well as the European Commission had cautioned at the time that given current policies of economic constraint, the vote might not translate into action.

"If we want to move towards gender equality in the work place," justice commissioner Viviane Reding had said, "we must find the right balance between concrete rights for mothers and the current economic realities facing businesses in the EU."

"The vote," she said at the time, "is very ambitious, but certainly will not make it easy to find a balanced compromise with the Council (of 27 states) in the near future."

The Commission initially had suggested 18 weeks' maternity leave, in line with recommendations by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Milquet said ministers were however largely in favour of extending the leave from 14 to 18 weeks.

Britain had said the five-month proposal would more than double its maternity leave bill, adding up to 2.4 billion pounds a year (2.75 billion euros, 3.8 billion dollars).

Britain has the longest maternity leave in the European Union at 52 weeks. But it is far from fully paid, with only the first six weeks on 90 percent pay.

German women get 14 weeks, French women 16 and Belgians 15 weeks.