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3rd Mar 2024

Talks to revise EU working time bill fail

  • An agreement on the definition of on-call working time is particularly important for some categories of workers, such as firemen and doctors (Photo: EUobserver)

After hours of late-night negotiations on Monday (27 April), EU member states and MEPs officially abandoned trying to reach an agreement on updating a directive on working hours across the 27-nation bloc.

"Despite five years of painstaking negotiations on the revision of the Working Time Directive, which often went on until the small hours, the current legislation will stay in force," the Czech EU presidency said in a statement.

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The aim was to revise the 1993 legislation to limit countries opting out from the 48-hour maximum working week that the law imposes. Fifiteen member states make use of the opt-out.

EU social affairs commissioner Vladimir Spidla said he was "sorely disappointed" by the outcome of this last round of conciliation talks which involved diplomats from all 27 member states and the equivalent number of MEPs.

The stalemate means the current EU rules on working time are to remain in force, with the European Commission now considering whether to draft new ones.

"My colleagues and I in the College of Commissioners will now need to reflect on this result, and decide what, if anything, we do next," Mr Spidla stated.

Main stumbling blocs

The deadlock between the parties was mainly due to several countries wanting to allow people to work longer than 48 hours a week, as well as to problems with defining "on-call" working time.

The difficulty in defining working hours was the reason for the European Commission deciding to change the working time rules in the first place. It followed several rulings by the EU's top court stating that on-call time should be regarded as regular working hours.

Member states want to distinguish between "active" on-call time (spent at the work place) and "inactive" on-call time (when one is not required to be physically at work), with the "inactive" type not necessarily counting as working time. The distinction is particularly relevant to doctors.

The parliament, on the other hand, says any on-call period of time is working time.

In December, MEPs also voted to scrap the opt-out from the 48-hour working week for the 15 countries that wanted to stay out, arguing that it undermined the health and safety of workers.

The UK has been particularly strong in defending the opt-out, with UK employment minister Pat McFadden saying on Tuesday: "We refused to be pushed into a bad deal for Britain."

"The current economic climate makes it more important than ever that people continue to have the right to put more money in their pockets by working longer hours if they choose to do so," he added, the BBC reported.

The commission expressed concern that the opt-out clause would now appeal to even more member states as a result of the failure to agree on the directive.

"And there won't even be more safeguards for workers who do use the opt-out," Mr Spidla said.

Blame game

EU states and MEPs blamed each other for the failed talks on Tuesday.

"The result of the talks was undoubtedly influenced by the approaching elections to the European Parliament. At this time, the MEPs were not willing to accept a deal that would, however, improve the employees' situation, and, at the same time, lead to a more flexible labour market," stated Petr Necas, Czech deputy prime minister and minister of labour and social affairs.

"The Parliament gave priority to ideology over political and economic reality," he went on.

German socialist MEP Mechtild Rothe, who chairs the parliament's delegation rejected the accusations and said the Council – representing EU member states – was the one to blame.

"We [the parliament] did move quite considerably. And therefore it would be quite incorrect to say that the parliament failed to give ground here. That simply doesn't tie in with the actual run of the negotiations," Ms Rothe said at a press conference.

"The main problem was that the Council felt that it was unable to make concessions to the parliament" on several points, she added.

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