Two years after the European Commission scrapped its own proposal for new EU maternity leave rules, the EU executive is getting ready to replace it with new measures, including some focused on getting more fathers to take leave.
The last attempt to update the EU maternity leave law dating from 1992, which gives women 14 weeks of leave with guaranteed sick pay, ended up stuck in negotiations for seven years.
Member states were unable to agree on guaranteeing full pay for women when they are on leave. The Commission axed the bill under the banner of better regulation rules—to withdraw stalled legislation—and promised to draft a new proposal.
Now, some social policy watchers in Brussels are sceptical of what the Commission will propose on Wednesday (26 April) because they fear the new bill could end up like its predecessor: stuck in deadlock for years, or potentially landing on the executive’s chopping block.
“We would not want the Council to block the proposal,” said Mary Collins, policy coordinator at the European Women’s Lobby.
Campaigners and MEPs told euractiv.com that they’re bracing themselves for a proposal that is less ambitious than the Commission’s last one because the executive does not want another bill to stall.
A Commission document dated from shortly after the maternity leave bill was withdrawn suggested that there could be changes to EU maternity and parental leave laws and possibly even a new proposal on paternity leave, which is not currently regulated by EU law.
A separate outline of the Commission’s plans described “measures such as the provision of remunerated leave for parents, both men and women”. A new EU law guaranteeing paternity leave could mean legal changes for some member states.
Most EU countries already have laws guaranteeing leave for fathers. But Germany, Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg and Slovakia do not.
Under current EU parental leave law, parents can take off at least four months. A 2010 update to those rules made one of the four months specific to each parent, a measure intended to encourage men to take leave because they cannot transfer it to female partners.
Fewer men take leave than women, according to OECD data covering the organisation’s 36 member countries, including 22 EU member states. More men in Nordic countries and in Slovenia take paternity leave than in other countries.
One of the main ideas behind the Commission’s reform of parental leave law is to boost the rate of women in the labour market.
“Insufficient possibilities and encouragement for men to take leaves is reinforcing women’s roles as primary carers, with negative effects on female employment,” reads one Commission document outlining plans for the proposal.
Belgian Socialist MEP Maria Arena, the rapporteur on the maternity leave bill before it was withdrawn, said a new EU paternity leave law would be good for gender equality.
But that alone would be “insufficient compared to what the Parliament has been asking for for years,” she told EURACTIV.
Arena has a list of demands for the Commission: she wants the executive to extend the minimum length for parental, maternity and paternity leave and to guarantee maternity and paternity leave at full salary, instead of just at sick-leave pay.
Women’s rights campaigners agree that paternity leave and updated parental leave rules can help women, but they still want the Commission to propose a new maternity leave bill—even though its last attempt to update the current 25-year-old directive failed.
Collins said that in some EU countries, it’s still difficult for women to take paid maternity leave when they are only guaranteed part of their regular salary.
“The issue of pay was very controversial in the past and for us it remains important,” she said.
MEPs pushed for the maternity leave bill to include full pay for mothers, but member states failed to approve that change.
The level of pay for parents on leave is likely to be a controversial issue in the Commission’s new proposals. Social issues have wound up tensions over several other pieces of legislation recently—member states are still sharply divided over the posted workers directive, for example.
The new proposals on parental, paternity or maternity leave are likely to bring up similar disagreements.
Several EU diplomats told euractiv.com that they think the Commission’s proposals would likely not be as controversial as the previous maternity leave bill, based on early drafts of the legislation that they had seen.
But divisions between member states over how much power the Commission should have as a regulator on social issues could still weigh down negotiations, diplomats said.
Candidates in France’s presidential election have squabbled over the posted worker rules and other EU social policies.
As one indicator of the tensions between member states, the Polish government said in its response to the Commission’s public consultation that it would reject any legally binding standards on social policies that the executive proposes on Wednesday.
Germany’s response to the consultation crossed out parts of the Commission’s question on parental leave and instead suggested that men and women could be encouraged to take time off “possibly through paid parental leave”.
Efforts to agree on minimum rules for paid maternity leave have triggered heated and divisive debates among EU member states.
On 3 October 2008, the European Commission proposed increasing compulsory maternity leave to 18 weeks, of which six would have to be taken immediately after childbirth. It also recommended that member states pay women their full salary during this leave period (though the Commission would not be able to enforce this).
The Womens' Rights Committee backed a report by Portuguese Socialist MEP Edite Estrela to increase minimum compulsory EU maternity leave to 20 weeks.
In June 2009, a coalition of centre-right and liberal MEPs had rejected Estrela's plans in a June vote in Strasbourg.
Member states in the Council of Ministers were so opposed to the bill that it never reached even a first reading.
Most European Union laws are debated by both Council and Parliament before negotiations between the two institutions. Those talks must end in an identical bill being backed by both before it can become law.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the new President of the European Commission, pledged to refocus the EU executive on the bigger political issues of the day and cut regulations seen as unnecessary or hampering business activity.
Juncker nominated his First Vice-President Frans Timmermans in a new role watching over the subsidiarity principle, whereby the EU should only intervene where it can act more effectively than national or local governments.
Timmermans led a screening exercise into pending legislation as part of the "Better Regulation" strategy. He earmarked 80 bills for the axe but gave the Parliament and Council six months to find a breakthrough in their seven year impasse over maternity leave. The Commission withdrew the directive in 2015 and promised to propose a new bill to replace it.
The new proposal, or proposals, on parental leave are expected as part of the Commission's broader social policy announcements on the European pillar of social rights on 26 April 2017.
- 26 April: EU Social Affairs Commissioner Thyssen announces changes to parental leave law as part of the pillar of social rights