The sensitive issue of maternity leave was on the agenda of ministers from the EU's 27 member states meeting in Brussels for the Employment and Social Affairs Council.
The meeting provided the first opportunity for ministers to discuss a European Parliament position on maternity leave, adopted on 20 October.
Back then, a large majority of MEPs voted in favour of boosting the minimum duration of maternity leave to 20 weeks and requiring member states to ensure that women continue to receive their full salary while on leave.
The conclusions of the ministerial meeting were presented by Joëlle Milquet, Belgium's deputy prime minister for employment and equal opportunities, who chaired the meeting on behalf of the Belgian EU Presidency.
"I think it's not a scoop to say that the very great majority of member states consider that, with the lengthening in the proposition of the duration of maternity leave from 18 to 20 weeks, and notably the idea of remuneration at 100%, the Parliament went a little bit too far," said Milquet.
The Belgian deputy prime minister said the Parliament's position would be difficult to take as the basis of a balanced compromise.
"On the other hand, a large majority of delegations considered that they will continue to support the objectives of the [European] Commission in its initial proposal, notably when it comes to protecting the health of women workers," said Milquet.
"Therefore, if we need to reach a balanced compromise, it will be starting from the basis of the Commission's initial proposal," the deputy prime minister said.
In its original proposal 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 (ILO).
Council hopes to agree its position in 2011
According to Milquet, the length of maternity leave and the remuneration of mothers are the two issues on which the Council takes a different view from that of the European Parliament. Many countries are concerned about the financial consequences of providing a guarantee of 20 weeks on full pay.
However, there are other issues on which ministers are more positive. For example, most are open to the notion of allowing women to extend their maternity leave by combining it with other kinds of leave, which already happens in many member states.
Milquet said the Belgian Presidency is currently preparing a document that will set out the way in which the Council can reach a common position on maternity leave and the rights of women workers before and after they have a baby.
The document, which will be finalised before the end of the year and shared with the other 26 member states, is being prepared in close consultation with the responsible ministers in the Hungarian and Polish governments, who will hold the rotating Council presidency during the first and second halves of 2011, Milquet added.
"The ideal would be to arrive at a common solution in 2011," said Milquet. "But I don't want to go into more details at this stage, because it belongs to the two next presidencies, and it remains uncertain."
Don't ignore the Parliament, warns MEP
Edite Estrela, the Portuguese socialist MEP who was in charge of drafting the European Parliament's position on the issue, was quick to criticise the outcomes from the ministers’ discussions.
"I regret that some member states expressed a disrespectful position towards the European Parliament," said Estrela.
"When they implied that the only basis for a possible compromise is the European Commission's proposal, somehow it showed they didn't fully understand the role of the Parliament within the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty. Neither did they take into consideration the large majority reached in the Parliament," she continued.
Estrela insists that she is willing to work with the current and future Council presidencies with a view to finding a compromise that will be acceptable to both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.
"As Parliament's rapporteur, I would like to reiterate my availability to work together with the Council in order to reach an agreement which will fulfil the needs of European families and of the European economy," she said.