MEPs’ last attempt to save maternity leave extension

Former Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli speaking during a vote on maternity leave in Parliament in 2010

MEPs are working around the clock to break the seven-year impasse on extending maternity leave, after European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said he would withdraw the proposed law within six months if the deadlock between Parliament and EU ministers was not broken.

“We must progress towards equality, but also allow women to balance family and professional life,” said Belgian Socialists & Democrats MEP Marie Arena.

“Maternity leave is currently a source of discrimination, which is not at the right level of a society that claims to be developed. Adopting an ambitious directive on maternity leave would increase the employment rate of women and the birth rate in Europe,” she added.

Arena is driving the race to bring all MEPs on board to push the “Council to take on their responsibilities with regard to Europeans and negotiate with the European Parliament.”

Grounds for a deal?

A diplomatic source told EURACTIV that the Latvian Presidency has called for a meeting on 18 March to sound whether there is ground to broker a deal.

The Latvian presidency doesn’t have yet a clear mandate to negotiate a compromise.

“To move forward we need the Parliament to come closer to the Council’s position,” said the source.

In 2008, the Commission proposed revisions to an existing directive which would increase maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks. The European Parliament called for an extension of fully paid maternity leave to 20 weeks, which the Council of Ministers did not accept. The proposal has now been blocked for seven years.

The maternity leave law was one of 80 pending pieces of legislation the European Commission planned to ditch in its drive for “better regulation”. About 73 bills were axed earlier this month. 

Timmermans’ iron hand

Timmermans set a six month deadline to resuscitate the moribound proposal and for Parliament and Council to reach a compromise.

“We are ready to make one last effort to unblock it but in six months we will take it off the table […] the onus is on the three EU institutions to create momentum around this proposal,” he said, during a plenary session in Strasbourg. He set a May 2015 deadline.

Some MEPS in the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality were outraged at the Commission’s decision. “It comes at a time when several EU countries face serious issues related to ageing populations and there is a clear need to promote higher birth rates, which are essential for the development of our societies,” said GUE/NGL Inês Zuber.

The European Council has sat on the proposal ever since it was adopted by the Parliament. It has not taken any steps to engage in negotiations, despite many attempts by MEPs to engage in dialogue.

 “The behaviour of the European Council, composed of the governments of the 28 member states, is very telling. It is always in agreement when it comes to cutting wages and reducing workers’ rights, but it cannot reach a consensus to raise the rights of families and working mothers,” said Zuber.

Find the money

The question of how much money women should receive while they are on maternity leave has emerged as the most controversial issue – not just in the Parliament, but also among governments, employers and other stakeholders.

The Commission had proposed that the minimum level of maternity pay should be based on the level of statutory sick pay in each member state. However, the Parliament has called for women to continue receiving 100% of their regular salary during the whole time that they are on maternity leave, with a limited exemption for countries that operate a system of shared parental leave.

A number of national governments, in particular those of Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as business and employers’ organisations, are strongly opposed to the suggestion that women should continue to receive full pay while they are on maternity leave.

Trade unionists joined centre-left MEPs urging EU ministers to show they care about European citizens as much as the euro.

“It is an absolute scandal that EU governments have been blocking an improvement in maternity leave since 2008” said Bernadette Ségol, General Secretary of the ETUC. “They need to act now to save this shameful situation.”    

“18 weeks maternity leave is an international standard, but EU governments have totally failed to agree it. Spending unimaginable amounts of money to save the euro has not been as difficult for them as improving women’s rights,” Ségol added.

“The threat to remove the Maternity Leave Directive from the legislative process is serious and undermines the democratic process of the European Parliament’s adopted position.  This negates Europe’s rhetoric on its commitment to gender equality and effective work-life balance for women and men in Europe,”said Joanna Maycock, Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby.

“The Parliament is seeking to break the deadlock with the Council by proposing to set up a joint working group, which is the most sensible thing to do now in order to move ahead to ensure equal maternity rights for women throughout Europe. Women are watching and waiting, they will not be held hostage as decision-makers grapple with their rights.”

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.

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