Tough French proposals have derailed talks on controversial EU labour mobility rules and dashed Malta’s hopes of brokering a compromise deal by the end of this month.
Employment ministers were supposed to sign off on their proposal for the so-called posted worker directive at a meeting on Thursday (15 June) in Luxembourg. But they ended up pushing an agreement until autumn at the earliest.
Several ministers used today’s meeting to call for a stop to bickering between member states over the file. The directive has already pit a group of eastern EU countries against France and other western member states that want tighter restrictions on workers. They argue that underpaid workers from low-wage countries undercut their local workforce. France has been the most vocal supporter of the new rules, which the European Commission announced last year.
But when France proposed new changes to the rules two weeks ago with even stricter measures, the deal was put off the table for today’s meeting.
France wants to halve the legal limit on how long posted workers – who travel to work temporarily in another member state – can stay abroad and still pay social contributions in their home country, according to the proposal obtained by EURACTIV.
If that suggestion goes through, temporary workers would be able to stay abroad for a maximum of 12 months. Malta, which has chaired the member states’ discussions since January, proposed a 24-month limit. Current EU law has no time restriction on posted workers.
Diplomats who did the legwork before today’s ministerial meeting said the French proposal ruined their timeline.
Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron has made the posted worker rules a priority. Negotiations over the bill “will be delayed so that we can truly reform”, he said during a speech on 31 May – one day after the list of France’s proposed changes landed on diplomats’ desks in Brussels.
France has the EU’s second-highest rate of worked posted from other member states. It’s an issue that has attracted a lot of attention in France: the number of posted workers there rose by 10.7% between 2010 and 2015.
“We want to ensure that posting is really temporary in nature. There should be a really hard core of guarantees and rights,” France’s new Labour Minister Muriel Pénicaud said during today’s meeting.
But the Commission threw a bombshell of its own into the already fraught negotiations. On 31 May, EU Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen announced an overhaul of a separate piece of legislation on how long truck drivers can work when they travel between EU countries. Eastern member states were particularly upset with the proposal, calling it protectionist.
“It was very bad timing in the end,” one diplomat said.
One source said that France’s proposal is setting negotiations up for a drastic twist. If the Council asks for a 12-month limit on how long posted workers can stay abroad, that will only be reduced during negotiations with the European Parliament.
“Twenty-four months was a compromise because we knew it would end up as twelve. If we say twelve, it will end up six. It’s not the best strategic approach by the Council,” the diplomat said.
The legislation can only go into effect after three-way negotiations wrap up between the Council, the Parliament and the Commission. But those talks will not start until national ministers finalise their positions.
Ministers from Austria and Luxembourg said today that they also want the maximum time for ‘posting’ to be less than 24 months, in line with France’s proposal. Other countries including Ireland made clear that they oppose the reduction.
Thyssen told reporters that she wants the ministers to agree on the proposal during their next meeting in October.
“We are unfortunately not there yet,” she said.
Thyssen acknowledged that the delay was at least partly caused by Macron’s government, which is still wrapping its head around the legislation.
“I think you need to understand when you have a new government, they need a bit of a running-in period so that they can agree with the preparatory work that we’ve done before,” she said.
Some ministers appeared impatient with the delay in negotiations. The talks have already stirred bitter disagreement between member states and dragging them out could sour relationships, they suggested.
“We remain concerned about the impact of this divisive file on the European Union more broadly,” said Joe Hackett, Ireland’s deputy ambassador to the EU.
“There are divides which have opened up between member states that are not negligible. We are not going to achieve an agreement if there isn’t a desire to bring those sides together,” Portuguese Employment Minister José António Vieira da Silva said.
Jan Richter, Slovakia’s labour minister, told his counterparts that “political tensions surrounding this package are mounting”.
One diplomat said that an agreement between ministers in October could be too optimistic. Estonia will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of ministers from Malta next month and start leading talks on the legislation.
Annikky Lamp, a spokeswoman for the Estonian government, called the directive “one of the key files for the Estonian presidency”.
Member states will go back to the drawing board in July to take up France’s tough proposal.
In addition to France’s push to limit posted workers to only 12 months abroad, employers would also be required to pay for their workers’ transport, accommodation and meals when they’re abroad under the new proposal.
Another French suggestion would set up a new process of monitoring and cracking down on companies that commit fraud by setting up a ‘letterbox’ presence when they have no offices in eastern member states, or by keeping workers abroad longer than they’re allowed.
France wants the Commission to coordinate between member states “in order to guarantee the principle of fair cooperation”.