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In its original proposal for a directive two years ago, the Commission suggested increasing the minimum level of maternity leave in the EU from 14 to 18 weeks, in line with standards developed by the International Labour Organisation.
But on 20 October last year a large majority of MEPs voted at first reading to boost the minimum duration of maternity leave to 20 weeks and require member states to ensure that women continue to receive their full salary while on leave.
Following that decision, the Council held a policy debate on 6 December 2010 during which eight member states registered reservations. That group has now consolidated its opposition in order to freeze the legislation.
Meeting this Friday (17 June), the Employment and Social Affairs Council (EPSCO) is set to adopt a progress report following discussions on a number of secondary amendments to the directive. However the eight-nation consortium – which also includes the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Sweden – plus some additional member states, is expected to intervene, with some claiming negotiations are unlikely to succeed, and others calling for negotiations to cease.
They are concerned about what they regard as the adoption of maximum not minimum EU standards and the lack of flexibility of the proposals to accommodate the various maternity leave systems that exist throughout the EU; as well as the financial consequences of providing a guarantee of 20 weeks on full pay, especially in the current economic climate.
Since the proposed directive is subject to qualified majority voting, the consortium has the power to shelve the draft legislation indefinitely. Although the Council does not have the power to throw out the proposal, it cannot be forced to put the issue back on the agenda.
EU diplomats close to the consortium told EurActiv that the measures in the proposed directive were extreme and that the European Parliament had been warned in briefings by the Council that its position went too far at the time of the first reading.
There are some differences of tone between the consortium members. The UK wants the directive left on the shelf indefinitely, and hopes that the Commission will abandon it eventually. Meanwhile, the Germans favour requesting a series of protracted 'impact assessments' on the dossier, but they too want the Commission to bin it.
MEP warns: 'We can play that game too!'
Reacting angrily to the development, Danish MEP Britta Thomsen, spokesperson on women's rights for the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, said that she was shocked and warned that the Parliament could retaliate in kind.
She said: "I think this is completely unacceptable and will be counter-productive. There are areas which the Parliament could block progress on issues where co-operation between the Parliament and Council is required."
A spokesman for Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding – who is responsible for the directive within the EU executive – said: "Our feeling is that this is still an important initiative […] We want the situation unblocked and the commissioner will seek to find compromises in order to achieve that."