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14th Aug 2022

Court action to follow EU working time deadlock

EU member states have failed to break a deadlock over Europe's working time rules, with Brussels warning that it will now take the 23 out of 25 countries in breach of the current bloc's labour legislation to court.

The legal action comes after governments were unable for the fifth time in a row to resolve the problem which has been dragging on for half a decade and was sparked by a ruling in Europe's top court regarding pay and rest of workers on duty, such as doctors or firemen.

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Five countries - France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus – rejected a final compromise solution drawn up by the Finnish EU presidency at an extraordinary meeting of social affairs ministers held in Brussels on Tuesday (7 November).

Their main argument was that Europe should - as part of the revision of common working time rules - set a clear deadline for scrapping the provision allowing employees to work longer than the average of 48 hours per week set as a current ceiling by EU rules.

"We want to ensure a fair social protection," said French minister Gerard Larcher, stressing that it was mainly concerns over unfair competition on workers' rights across the EU that had caused the rejection of the bloc's constitution by his fellow citizens in last May's referendum.

His criticism was primarily addressed to Britain, as the only country currently using the opt-out from the EU weekly work limits and leading the camp of those in favour of its retention, such as Germany, Poland, Slovenia and the Baltic states.

But EU social affairs commissioner Vladimir Spidla argued that the five countries fighting in the name of the European social model on Tuesday achieved no "social progress" by blocking Helsinki's plan.

"The Finnish proposals offered a real chance for an eventual end to the opt-opt, but now we haven't got even a review clause" he said, referring to the compromise suggestion that Brussels analyse the implications of the opt-out and the countries using it should act if it leads to abuse of workers.

No solution for workers on duty

The collapse of the talks left both member states and the commission confused as to what next steps to take, with Germany - to chair the EU from January - making clear it does not plan to follow the path of previous presidencies in trying unsuccessfully to break the deadlock.

Commissioner Spidla hinted that he may even suggest removing the existing EU working time rules - dating back to 1993 - altogether and filing a new proposal.

Before that however, Brussels - as the 'guardian of the EU treaties' - intends to act against most countries - apart from Luxembourg and Italy - due to their different application of the working time directive.

In two cases in 2000 and 2003, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said that the time some professionals spend on duty - whether actually working or just making themselves available - should be regarded as proper "working time" regarding pay and rest.

But most countries do not abide by this rule as its strict application would likely cause heavy financial burdens as well as a lack of professionals in some sectors, mainly health care.

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