Maternity leave to rise to 20 weeks

The minimum maternity leave in European Union countries would be raised by six weeks to a total of 20 under a proposal by EU lawmakers designed to boost flagging birth rates.

Yesterday's move, which extends a proposal by the EU executive to raise the mandatory time off for new mothers to 18 weeks with full pay, could meet strong resistance from some governments and businesses. But economists say Europe's ageing population is a financial timebomb that could damage economic growth rates in coming decades unless there are more young people to help foot the bill.

EU projections show the number of elderly people will almost double in the next 50 years, straining healthcare and pension budgets. "Europe needs more children to safeguard its economic future," said Edite Estrela, a Portuguese socialist member of the European Parliament.

EU governments are expected to vote on the proposal next year but Germany has already hinted that it could oppose it.