In the last round of negotiations, the Parliament and the Council agreed that they could not reach a compromise on three crucial points: the opt-out, on-call time and multiple contracts. The decision was taken by an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament (EP) delegation with 15 votes in favour, five abstentions and zero against.
It is the first time that no agreement has been found in a conciliation committee - the 'last-chance saloon' for negotiations between Council and Parliament - since the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty, which significantly extended the scope of the co-decision procedure for legislative acts.
”Unfortunately, after five years of negotiations, it was not possible to reach an agreement. The EP negotiating team made several proposals on the opt-out so that it would become 'exceptional and temporary'. The opt-out cannot be forever. On the Council side, any attempt to put an end to the opt-out was not acceptable," said German Socialist MEP Mechtild Rothe, who lead the Parliament's delegation.
Of all EU member states, the UK had been the most prominent in the debate over the years, and remained so until the last. The opt-out to the 48-hour week rule was originally inserted at the behest of the British government, and has attracted the support of successive UK administrations. A cluster of other countries followed suit.
"The Socialist-dominated negotiating team interpreted their mandate from the Parliament very rigidly, and refused to accept compromises regarding on-call time, which were on the table, unless there was a parallel agreement to phase out the opt-out. It was obvious from the beginning that the blocking minority in the Council would never agree to this, and so the Parliament's 'all or nothing' approach ensured that the result was nothing," said the centre-right EPP-ED group's employment and social affairs coordinator, Philip Bushill-Matthews.
The EP negotiating team pointed the finger at the Council's blocking minority for having torpedoed the negotiations. "How can you have a blocking minority decide for the whole European Union?," exclaimed Swedish Socialist MEP Jan Andersson, who chairs the EU assembly's employment and social affairs committee and was also a member of the negotiating team.
On call-time and multiple contracts
Successive rulings by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) have classified on-call time as working time. This position was supported by a European Parliament vote on 17 December 2008 (EurActiv 18/12/08).
The proposals by the Commission and the Council on the issue were backward steps compared to the ECJ's rulings, MEPs said.
No substantive agreement on the issue of multiple contracts could be reached either. For workers covered by more than one employment contract, MEPs considered that working time should be calculated per worker and not per contract.
Will the next Commission take up the baton?
Since there is no agreement, the current directive, dating from 1993, remains in force. Nevertheless, the new Commission has the option of drafting a new proposal from scratch when it takes office in the autumn."We can only hope that the new Commission makes a new proposal very soon," said Rothe, adding that during the confirmation hearings of the new commissioners, working time was sure to play a prominent role.