The European Parliament is pushing hard to bring in longer EU minimum standards for maternity leave. But MEPs are likely to face stiff resistance from some EU member states, particularly the UK.
There was a feeling of déjà vu in the Parliament yesterday (23 February) as 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 last year, a coalition of centre-right and liberal MEPs had already rejected Estrela's plans in a June vote in Strasbourg.
Estrela does not believe history will repeat itself, however, and claimed she was "confident" Parliament would back her plans this time around.
Responding to a question from EURACTIV following yesterday's vote, she argued that last year's rejection was for political reasons, as centre-right MEPs did not want to touch upon this sensitive issue ahead of June's European elections.
"A new parliament means a new situation," she said, adding that "we are legislating for the future" with this progressive proposal.
Cost too high, says UK
However, even if a majority of MEPs endorse the report, it seems likely that further political battles are inevitable.
The UK, for example, is worried about the costs involved in this latest plan, and would likely block it when it reaches ministerial level.
The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) warned that the proposed changes would be costly during an economic downturn.
BCC Director of Policy Adam Marshall told the Associated Press that "the Pregnant Workers Directive should be about setting minimum EU standards for the health and safety of pregnant workers – not adding new payroll costs for overburdened companies and national social security systems".
"This vote introduces complexity and uncertainty, which are totally unnecessary, as the UK and other EU countries already have well-developed national maternity pay systems," he said, urging the European Parliament and EU national ministers to "overturn these costly amendments".
"Companies need to be given the space to deliver growth and jobs – without being hamstrung by new and costly maternity rules," he argued.
Report 'goes too far', says Commission
A European Commission source told EURACTIV that "we feel this report is going a bit too far," both in terms of the 20-week minimum and the paternity leave clause.
However, Estrela hit back by saying that she had received no response from the Commission when she repeatedly asked what decisions would be made regarding paternity leave.
"19 EU countries already have paternity leave legislation," she told EURACTIV, adding that "we believe we should enshrine in EU law what most member states already have".
"It's a question of harmonisation," she concluded.