20th Jan 2022

EU stalemate on working time rules deemed 'irreconcilable'

The EU remains divided on the rules setting ceilings for working hours due to health and safety concerns.

"I don't see chances for compromise" in the future, said Austrian economy minister Martin Bartenstein, who chaired ministerial talks in Luxembourg which dragged on past midnight on Thursday (1 June).

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  • How long should the Europeans be allowed to work? (Photo: Notat)

The Austrian presidency earlier pledged to break the stalemate on the contentious issue, following failed attempts by three previous EU presidencies in a row.

Under the current working time directive, employees cannot work more than an average of 48 hours per week - unless they agree to longer hours under an opt-out scheme which was secured by the UK.

London together with several "new" member states resisted attempts to remove the opt-out from the directive, while states like France and Sweden pressed for it to be scrapped.

Mr Bartenstein said the two camps proved "irreconcilable," saying that despite Thursday's rumours over a near deal, "we've never been anywhere near a compromise really."

"Some countries pursue a passive strategy as it is convenient for them to keep the status quo and it has proved a good and successful strategy," commented EU social policy commissioner Vladimir Spidla.

European trade unions warned the Austrian presidency before Thursday's meeting not to bow to UK pressure and "undermine a cornerstone of social Europe."

EU court triggered the rules' overhaul

A review of the bill is needed following a 2004 ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which said that the time some professionals spend on duty should be regarded as proper "working time."

The decision has direct implications for pay and rest conditions for doctors, other medical staff, firemen, social workers and some other professionals.

Currently, three quarters of EU member states do not abide by the ECJ ruling, which prompted Brussels to propose a different definition of on-call time and so change the directive.

But the European Parliament earlier agreed that the overhaul of the legislation should also tackle the opt-out and called for its complete scrapping.

Last year, the then UK presidency suggested phasing out the opt-out in the future but some of its key critics - like France or Sweden - insisted on a clear date.

On top of this, governments are in a stalemate over contracts used by more workers at the same time, with some in favour of applying the 48-hour limit to an individual worker, and others to a single contract.

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