Ministers to shelve maternity leave directive

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A consortium of up to eleven member states led by the UK and Germany are set to freeze the Pregnant Workers Directive in its tracks when they meet on Friday (17 June), in the hope that the European Commission will later abandon it, EURACTIV has learned.

In its original proposal for a directive 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.

But on 20 October last year a large majority of MEPs voted at first reading to boost the minimum duration of maternity leave to 20 weeks and require member states to ensure that women continue to receive their full salary while on leave.

Following that decision, the Council held a policy debate on 6 December 2010 during which eight member states registered reservations. That group has now consolidated its opposition in order to freeze the legislation.

Deep-frozen directive

Meeting this Friday (17 June), the Employment and Social Affairs Council (EPSCO) is set to adopt a progress report following discussions on a number of secondary amendments to the directive. However the eight-nation consortium – which also includes the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Sweden – plus some additional member states, is expected to intervene, with some claiming negotiations are unlikely to succeed, and others calling for negotiations to cease.

They are concerned about what they regard as the adoption of maximum not minimum EU standards and the lack of flexibility of the proposals to accommodate the various maternity leave systems that exist throughout the EU; as well as the financial consequences of providing a guarantee of 20 weeks on full pay, especially in the current economic climate.

Since the proposed directive is subject to qualified majority voting, the consortium has the power to shelve the draft legislation indefinitely. Although the Council does not have the power to throw out the proposal, it cannot be forced to put the issue back on the agenda.

EU diplomats close to the consortium told EURACTIV that the measures in the proposed directive were extreme and that the European Parliament had been warned in briefings by the Council that its position went too far at the time of the first reading.

There are some differences of tone between the consortium members. The UK wants the directive left on the shelf indefinitely, and hopes that the Commission will abandon it eventually. Meanwhile, the Germans favour requesting a series of protracted 'impact assessments' on the dossier, but they too want the Commission to bin it.

MEP warns: 'We can play that game too!'

Reacting angrily to the development, Danish MEP Britta Thomsen, spokesperson on women's rights for the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, said that she was shocked and warned that the Parliament could retaliate in kind.

She said: "I think this is completely unacceptable and will be counter-productive. There are areas which the Parliament could block progress on issues where co-operation between the Parliament and Council is required."

A spokesman for Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding – who is responsible for the directive within the EU executive – said: "Our feeling is that this is still an important initiative […] We want the situation unblocked and the commissioner will seek to find compromises in order to achieve that."

Jeremy Fleming

"I am shocked at this," said Danish MEP Britta Thomsen, spokesperson on women's rights for the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group. "20 weeks is not an extreme position, in Portugal they already have 24 weeks of maternity leave. I think this is completely unacceptable and will be counter-productive, there are areas which the Parliament could block progress on issues where cooperation between the Parliament and Council is required," Thomsen concluded.

"The member states all agree that there should be rights for pregnant workers, but many believe that the minimum standards in existence are adequate, and that the compulsory and rigid maximum standards laid down by the Parliament are absolutely not the way to go forward," said an EU diplomat.

"Germany believes there is a necessity to give much further examination to these rules before going further," according to another EU diplomat. He added "We need particularly detailed impact assessment in order to make an informed opinion. Ultimately if the dossier is abandoned that would be fine.

"We were critical of the Parliament's amendments and we believe that at a fundamental level this kind of social policy should not be the subject of a directive at EU level," the second diplomat said. 

"Our feeling is that this is still an important initiative and we are going to work with the Polish Presidency as an honest broker between the Council and the Parliament," according to a spokesman for Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding.

He said: "We want the situation unblocked and the commissioner will seek to find compromises in order to achieve that."

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.

The Parliament's opinion was controversial, including provisions that minimum maternity leave in the EU be extended from 14 to 20 weeks, six weeks of which would be taken immediately after childbirth.

The maternity leave rules were to apply to domestic workers and self-employed workers.

Workers on maternity leave were to be paid their full salary, which had to be 100% of their last monthly salary or their average monthly salary.

Member states would also be obliged to implement paternity leave of at least two weeks within the period of maternity leave.

The eight members of the consortium that will block the proposal from going forward on Friday are the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden and the UK, but Ireland, Malta and Slovenia are also expected to table amendments to the proposed directive.

  • 17 June: EPSCO to meet in Brussels, group of eight nations expected to impede progress of Pregnant Workers Directive.

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