Monday, November 8, 2010

Maternity leave rights will test UK’s patience with Europe

“Choose your battles carefully” would be Machiavelli’s advice to David Cameron. The British Prime Minister was in Brussels this week with a mission to freeze the EU budget for 2011. It is a battle he is set to lose.
The showdown over the budget was Mr Cameron’s first real foray as Prime Minister into hard-nosed European negotiations. His attack on the proposed budget increase at his week’s European Summit rallied the more Eurosceptic wing in his party. However, after failing to repatriate powers to the UK, as he had promised to do before the election, and now failing to prevent a rise to the EU budget, he will need to find another battle to win if he is to confirm his Euro-realist credentials.
He doesn’t need to wait long. After lying low on employment and social legislation, the European Commission has chosen a time of increasing unemployment across Europe to propose to extend maternity leave. The Council has already pushed back any major extension of paid leave for new mothers but the UK Government, more than most, will want to resist any new maternity leave rights. So far, David Cameron has kept quiet since his coalition partners will not want to take such a hard line. However, he will soon have to take a view and come out fighting if he is to please his own party which believes that the EU has no role to play at all in employment and social affairs.
Last week the European Parliament adopted the Estrela Report on the “improvement of the health and safety at work of workers who are pregnant or have recently given birth”.
MEPs want to increase paid maternal leave to 20 paid weeks and make a two-week paid paternal leave mandatory across the EU.
"Maternity cannot be regarded as a burden on social security systems, it is an investment in our future," argued the author of the Parliament’s Report, Portuguese Socialist MEP Edite Estrela.
The Estrela report proposes minimum maternity leave should be extended from 14 to 20 weeks, six weeks of which would be taken immediately after childbirth. The rules would apply to self-employed workers. Workers on maternity leave must be paid their full salary, which must be 100% of their last monthly salary or their average monthly salary. The report also says that member states must give fathers the right to fully paid paternity leave of at least two weeks within the period of maternity leave. Female workers cannot be fired from the beginning of a pregnancy to at least six months following the end of the maternity leave.
Sometimes an issue exposes cultural divisions as much as political ones. This is one such issue. The vote by and large followed national lines with a high cohesion ratio of 72,54% among MEP votes from the same state. Of the UK MEPs that voted, 54 voted against and only 3 in favour. The liberal group ALDE was divided right in the middle on the issue. UK Liberals were opposed to the report.
Liz Lynne a UK Lib Dem MEP on the social and employment committee said that at a time of economic recovery, it would not be acceptable to impose such a heavy burden on businesses. And in any case, it would only give employers further reason not to employ young women.
The report did not take into consideration who would be picking up the bill. Responsibilities for paying for maternity leave vary across Europe. France will oppose the Parliament’s position since it will be the Government that would be responsible for an additional €1.3 billion.
What is remarkable is that the report received most support from the southern states. The so-called PIGS plus Ireland, all without exception voted overwhelmingly for the legislative proposal. Bankrupt Greece voted 14 for the proposition and 0 against. Italy had 57 votes for and one vote against the proposition. Spain had 37 for and 1 against, Ireland voted 11 for and 0 against.
The European Small Business Association estimates the cost for these proposals from the Parliament would be in the region of €121bn between now and 2030. The proposed 2.9% increase in the EU budget would cost the UK a further €500m in contributions. The maternity rights proposals present a much bigger challenge to David Cameron. Certainly much more tax-payers money is at stake. Is he ready to go to battle, again?

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