European leaders are saying goodbye to the extended vacations that were a continental norm until the global crisis broke out in high summer six years ago.
As the region’s economy labors to solidify its recovery, French President Francois Hollande has barely taken any time off and ordered his cabinet members to stay within commuting distance of Paris. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta ensured that either he or his deputy would be in Rome all through August. And in Greece, the epicenter of the euro crisis, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras took just four days off and even then found time to fire the head of the state asset sales fund.
Their willingness to forgo a lengthy summer vacation, a mainstay of European life, comes six years after a phone call from Frankfurt shattered former European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet’s holiday in northern France. The caller informed him that three troubled BNP Paribas SA hedge funds were causing money markets to seize up, the first signal that a global financial crisis was breaking out.
“The crisis has reinforced the trend toward far shorter vacations for European leaders,” Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, said in a phone interview. “There’s also an emerging sense among voters, fueled by the crisis, that they have a right to judge their leaders on things like holidays.”
The new-found frugality contrasts with the largesse displayed by European leaders in decades gone by. Throughout most of his 16-year tenure as chancellor, Germany’s Helmut Kohl took a four-week summer break, usually at Wolfgangsee, a lake in Austria. Former French President Jacques Chirac stayed on vacation in Quebec during a French heat wave in the summer of 2003 that killed more than 11,000 people over two weeks.
That culture was blown apart by the credit crisis, which made BlackBerrys and laptops as indispensable a part of any vacation as sandals and sunglasses.
Hollande, who is planning to announce an overhaul of the French pension system and government spending cuts in September, took a one-week break at Chateau Lanterne, a government owned villa about a 20 minute drive from Paris.
“A period of rest without being a rupture,” Hollande instructed his ministers Aug. 2 at their last meeting before their two-week break.
In 2007, Trichet fired the opening salvo in the battle against the crisis with a fax machine at his holiday home that he used to issue missives to officials in Frankfurt. In August 2008, officials spent much of their vacations watching their mobile devices in the weeks leading up to the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
In 2011, markets tumbled after a summit in late July failed to convince investors about European leaders’ readiness to address the euro crisis’s root causes, forcing Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to return to work earlier than planned. In 2012, ECB officials spent the month engaging in shuttle diplomacy as President Mario Draghi put together a bond purchase plan that would underpin the ailing euro.
“Leaders don’t want to be seen lounging on a distant beach or sitting on the terrace of a swanky hotel,” said Spyros Economides, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics and deputy director of the LSE’s Hellenic Observatory. “Voters do comment when leaders go on vacation. It used to be tongue in cheek but no more.”
The question for European leaders trying to set an example is whether there is anyone around to listen to them even if they do curtail their vacations. Parliaments are shut down and civil servants use that as opportunity to take their own vacation. Officials in the French Finance Ministry typically have a total of 45 vacation days per year. German civil servants in Berlin get 30 days.
“The irony is that it’s very difficult to actually work,” said Laurent Dubois, professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “Parliament is in recess so no bills can be passed. So a leader wants to show action but it ends up being mostly words because it’s difficult to act.”
In Berlin, the glass and concrete-walled cafeteria in parliament’s biggest new building, Jakob-Kaiser-Haus, is two thirds empty for the six-week period when the capital’s schools shut. The Bundestag, parliament’s lower house, closed for an extended 12-week recess before Germany’s Sept. 22 elections.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, on a battle footing as she seeks a third term, opted for a two-and-a-half-week break at the Richard Wagner festival in Bayreuth and hiking in the Italian Alps, a one-hour flight from Berlin.
Some European leaders are nevertheless insisting that they are still entitled to generous breaks. Since May, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has taken four holidays, including a visit to Spain, two weeks in Portugal and a trip to the Scottish island of Jura. Cameron today cut short a vacation in Cornwall, southwest England, to return to London to deal with the emerging crisis in Syria.
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne went to the U.S. this year and London Mayor Boris Johnson, who was 4,000 miles (6,440 kilometers) away in Canada when riots broke out two years ago, this year vacationed on the other side of the world, in Australia.
Cameron’s office, asked about the vacations, cited his reply from 2011 that “the pressures on your diary and time are massive, so you have to try to make sure your diary is arranged in a way that lets you have some normal life.”
Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen took four weeks off in July, including a three-week road trip in the U.S. with his family, sampling beers at micro-breweries, he told reporters on Aug. 6.
Even though this summer is the quietest for European crisis fighters in six years, rising unemployment and the advent of social media such as Twitter nevertheless means that even those leaders still taking extended breaks may struggle to do so for much longer, said Dubois.
The unemployment rate across the 17-nation euro area is at 12.1 percent, with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicting the rates for Spain and Greece are set to rise to about 28 percent by the end of next year.
While the region exited its longest-ever recession in the second quarter, the European Central Bank predicts that the bloc’s economy will shrink 0.6 percent in all of 2013.
“Winston Churchill used to take weeks or months of vacation and do his painting and drink large amounts of alcohol,” said Erixon. “Those days are long over.”