MEPs slam Commission as Working Time conciliation fails

Overworked [Shutterstock]

The European Parliament has openly criticised the inactivity of the EU executive as MEPs and the European Council yesterday failed to resolve long-running disagreements over the Working Time Directive.

Both sides met in conciliation talks yesterday evening (17 March) in Brussels, and despite the meeting running into the night, “no agreement could be reached on the main controversial aspects” of the directive, according to German Socialist MEP Mechtild Rothe, who chaired the Parliament’s delegation to the conciliation committee.

Launching conciliation talks, which are effectively the ‘last-chance saloon’ of Council-Parliament negotiations, became necessary after the Parliament voted against national opt-outs to the directive in December 2008 (EURACTIV 18/12/08). 

However, it appears that little progress has been made, if indeed any at all, with the Parliament again digging its heels in amid attempts by the Council to keep opt-outs, notably for the UK. “The bones of contention that were always there remain,” said Rothe, citing the opt-out and related issues regarding standby time, resting time and multiple contracts. 

The German MEP claimed that Parliament made a “big gesture” by agreeing to accept the Council’s differentiation between “active” (a period during which the worker must be available at the workplace in order to work when required to do so by the employer) and “passive” (a period during which the worker is on call but is not required by his employer to work) on-call time. 

However, ending the opt-out remains the sine qua non for the Parliament. As it seems that the Council will not give way, however, such gestures may be in vain. 

Commission ‘not pulling its weight’ 

Rothe reserved strong criticism for the European Commission, saying the EU executive’s lack of involvement in the ongoing conflict is “very disappointing”. 

“The Commission doesn’t seem to have a proper position on the directive,” she said, arguing that should conciliation fail, the current proposal will have to be binned, meaning the EU executive will have to become involved anyway, because it will be responsible for drafting a new proposal. 

However, while she claimed that “the Commission has not been pulling its weight,” she left the door open for the EU executive to get on board, saying: “We want them to have a stronger involvement and we’re giving them a second chance.” 

The next conciliation meeting takes place on 1 April. Any final agreement will need to be approved or rejected at the Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg on 4-7 May. 

Background

Working time is a long-standing issue at EU level. The 1993 Working Time Directive stipulates that workers must not work more than an average of 48 hours a week (calculated over any four-month period), although it allows for broad derogations. 

The text needed to be revised following a number of European Court of Justice rulings. The European Commission presented its proposal for a revised directive back in May 2004, but member states only managed to reach a compromise on the issue in June 2008. 

The current deal limits workers to a weekly maximum of 48 hours, but allows social partners to find 'flexible arrangements' if granted approval by the employer. 

The insertion of this opt-out clause, under which workers could effectively put in up to 60-65 hours per week, was one of the UK government's main demands, while Spain and other nations lobbied heavily against it. 

In December 2008, the European Parliament voted to scrap national opt-outs to the Working Time Directive and enforce an EU-wide maximum working week of 48 hours, sending the issue to a Council-Parliament conciliation committee. 

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