Ministers reject Parliament’s wishes on maternity leave

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Meeting in Brussels yesterday (6 December), EU social affairs ministers refused to accept the demands of the European Parliament regarding minimum standards of maternity leave. The Council is expected to agree its own position sometime next year.

The sensitive issue of maternity leave was on the agenda of ministers from the EU's 27 member states meeting in Brussels for the Employment and Social Affairs Council.

The meeting provided the first opportunity for ministers to discuss a European Parliament position on maternity leave, adopted on 20 October.

Back then, a large majority of MEPs voted in favour of boosting the minimum duration of maternity leave to 20 weeks and requiring member states to ensure that women continue to receive their full salary while on leave.

The conclusions of the ministerial meeting were presented by Joëlle Milquet, Belgium's deputy prime minister for employment and equal opportunities, who chaired the meeting on behalf of the Belgian EU Presidency.

"I think it's not a scoop to say that the very great majority of member states consider that, with the lengthening in the proposition of the duration of maternity leave from 18 to 20 weeks, and notably the idea of remuneration at 100%, the Parliament went a little bit too far," said Milquet.

The Belgian deputy prime minister said the Parliament's position would be difficult to take as the basis of a balanced compromise.

"On the other hand, a large majority of delegations considered that they will continue to support the objectives of the [European] Commission in its initial proposal, notably when it comes to protecting the health of women workers," said Milquet.

"Therefore, if we need to reach a balanced compromise, it will be starting from the basis of the Commission's initial proposal," the deputy prime minister said.

In its original proposal two years ago, the Commission suggested increasing the minimum level of maternity leave in the EU from 14 to 18 weeks, in line with standards developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Council hopes to agree its position in 2011

According to Milquet, the length of maternity leave and the remuneration of mothers are the two issues on which the Council takes a different view from that of the European Parliament. Many countries are concerned about the financial consequences of providing a guarantee of 20 weeks on full pay.

However, there are other issues on which ministers are more positive. For example, most are open to the notion of allowing women to extend their maternity leave by combining it with other kinds of leave, which already happens in many member states.

Milquet said the Belgian Presidency is currently preparing a document that will set out the way in which the Council can reach a common position on maternity leave and the rights of women workers before and after they have a baby. 

The document, which will be finalised before the end of the year and shared with the other 26 member states, is being prepared in close consultation with the responsible ministers in the Hungarian and Polish governments, who will hold the rotating Council presidency during the first and second halves of 2011, Milquet added.

"The ideal would be to arrive at a common solution in 2011," said Milquet. "But I don't want to go into more details at this stage, because it belongs to the two next presidencies, and it remains uncertain."

Don't ignore the Parliament, warns MEP

Edite Estrela, the Portuguese socialist MEP who was in charge of drafting the European Parliament's position on the issue, was quick to criticise the outcomes from the ministers’ discussions.

"I regret that some member states expressed a disrespectful position towards the European Parliament," said Estrela.

"When they implied that the only basis for a possible compromise is the European Commission's proposal, somehow it showed they didn't fully understand the role of the Parliament within the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty. Neither did they take into consideration the large majority reached in the Parliament," she continued.

Estrela insists that she is willing to work with the current and future Council presidencies with a view to finding a compromise that will be acceptable to both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

"As Parliament's rapporteur, I would like to reiterate my availability to work together with the Council in order to reach an agreement which will fulfil the needs of European families and of the European economy," she said.

Portuguese Socialist MEP Edite Estrela, author of the European Parliament's report on maternity leave, said that Europe needs a more progressive approach to the issue.

"The current financial and economic crisis is no excuse for failing to prepare for the future. With declining birth rates in Europe, we will have major problems linked to an ageing population. We should be preparing now for a progressive, fair and efficient policy that is much needed in Europe. But ministers have turned a blind eye, using the crisis as an alibi," said Estrela.

Danish MEP Britta Thomsen, spokesperson on women's rights for the European Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, said the Council had been 'short-sighted'.

"The Parliament expressed its faith in a social and labour system in which women and men can use all their potential to the benefit of society and at the same time have a full family life," said Thomsen.

"[The Council] should understand that this is a proposal for the medium and long term that will have a positive impact on the economy and on our social and pension schemes," she added.

Élisabeth Morin-Chartier, a French MEP from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group, said the European Parliament was responsible for the current stalemate because it chose to adopt a position that could never be accepted by the Council of Ministers.

"This is where the demagoguery and irresponsibility of the European Parliament leads us! To a massive disappointment for women! I am very angry with all those who made-believe that maternity leave of 20 weeks on full pay was possible in this period of crisis," she said.

"I was opposed to this proposal when it was voted on by the Parliament," Morin-Chartier added. "I don't want to make women believe the impossible. We could have all reached an agreement on 18 weeks, it was possible, today it would have been adopted and women would have been able to benefit from it," she said.

The United Kingdom fears that the Parliament's position would be too expensive to implement. UK Minister for Employment Relations Edward Davey said: "The UK and other countries have made clear that EU rules on maternity rights should not be reformed in a costly and regressive way."

"The changes proposed by MEPs would restrict a member state's ability to deliver a system that works in the best interests of parents," said Davey.

"We have agreed that we must pause for reflection before we determine how, or indeed if, an acceptable compromise can be reached. On the basis of the current proposals it is difficult to see how such a compromise can be achieved," he added. 

The European Small Business Alliance (ESBA) welcomed the Council's conclusions. ESBA President Tina Sommer said: "We all want adequate, flexible maternity leave but it should be for governments in dialogue with parents and their employers to decide how much their economy can afford to give and how it is to be delivered. These proposals 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."

Under existing EU legislation, in force since 1992, women workers are entitled to take at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave when they have a baby.

Many member states already have more generous leave provisions, although in Sweden for example, parental leave can be shared between the mother and the father.

In October 2008, the European Commission presented a proposal to increase the minimum level of maternity leave in the EU from 14 to 18 weeks, in line with standards developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Longer maternity leave is seen as a way of encouraging women to breastfeed their babies, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

On 20 October 2010, the European Parliament voted in favour of giving all female employees at least 20 weeks maternity leave, without any reduction in pay.

  • 2011: Council expected to reach common position at first reading.
  • The text will then return to Parliament for a second reading.

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