Brussels gears up for Maternity Leave II

Frans Timmermans sent a waning letter [European Commission]

The European Commission is working on new ideas to increase the participation of women on the labour market after it ditched the hard-fought maternity leave proposal last month.

“In the EU three-quarters of all men are employed, whereas only slightly over 60% of all women. This is a moral problem and a social problem, because women run a greater risk of falling into poverty,” European Commission first Vice-President Frans Timmermans said, presenting a roadmap for a new start to address the challenges of work-life balance.

While he conceded that it is ‘a huge waste of resources for the European economy’, Timmermans said he wants the Commission to deliver results quickly.

In a letter he wrote to Jean Asselborn, Foreign Affairs Minister of Luxembourg, which holds the presidency of the Council of the EU until the end of the year, Timmermans added that the EU executive wished to make a clear break from the stalemate over the old proposal and open up the way for new initiatives.

In 2008, the Commission proposed a Maternity Leave Directive that would increase the compulsory maternity leave period in the EU from 14 to 18 weeks. But in its first reading in the European Parliament, MEPs voted to extend the period to 20 weeks at full pay, and the text has been stuck in the Council ever since.

After losing patience with this blockage, the new European Commission decided to scrap the deadlocked proposal.

>> Read: Draft EU law on maternity leave to be scrapped as ‘red tape’

The Commission has now published a roadmap outlining its first ideas. “This is the start of a process of reflection and consultations, to prepare a new, comprehensive initiative in 2016,” Timmermans said.

The percentage of women working in Europe was 63.5%, way off the Europe 2020 target for total employment and the rate of men (75%).

According to the Commission, female labour market participation remains far below its potential in most countries, due to a lack of possibilities for balancing work and family responsibilities.

Even though individual member states are reluctant to receive instructions, Brussels is convinced that EU action is necessary to guarantee a level playing field and prevent negative impact to competitiveness across the 28-country bloc. Indeed, the substantial difference in women’s employment rates between member states today (from 40% in Greece to 75% in Sweden) reflects the relative performance of their labour markets that can put at risk the economic and social convergence within the single market.

The mapping of possible options in the new roadmap goes as far as promoting flexible working arrangements while reducing the pay gap between men and women, enforcing and further incentivising parental leave, the introduction of caretakers’ leave for elderly and ill dependants, among other measures. Not only maternity leave is included in the Commission’s suggestions, but also a variety of flexible work arrangements complementing the current legal framework on leave.

“We need a comprehensive approach. It is in the interest of every single member state to make progress in this area, with nationals measures and with the support of EU initiatives if appropriate. Because it is the right thing to do, because it is the smart thing to do,” Timmermans said.

The Commission is determined to link new initiatives to the existing policy coordination in the framework of the Europe 2020 strategy. The issue is clearly connected to the European semester, under which Brussels monitors national budgets and issues country-specific recommendations, also in the area of female labour market participation and parental leave arrangements.

After a public consultation and debate with social partners and stakeholders, Brussels intends to bring forward new initiatives as part of the 2016 Work Programme.

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.

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