The EU’s Maternity Leave Directive: The Council secretly rejects the EP’s olive branch

30.3.15  The Council’s refusal to accept the EP’s olive branch and even start negotiations on a possible compromise (however unlikely that might be) is petty and vindictive

by Steve Peers, Professor of Law, University of Essex (Twitter: @StevePeers)

Back in 2008, the Commission proposed a modest amendment to the EU’s existing maternity leave Directive. The European Parliament amended the proposal so that there would be a significant extension in the duration and cost of maternity leave – namely 20 weeks on full pay. This attracted very little interest in the Council, and negotiations were deadlocked for years.

The incoming Commission in 2014 indicated that the EP and the Council had a few months to reopen negotiations on the proposal, or it would withdraw it. It appears that the EP then made some overtures to the Council to open negotiations to this end, although the documents setting out this willingness to negotiate (referred to in the Council document) do not seem to be publicly available.

According to the attached LIMITE document (obtained by Statewatch) large number of Member States in the Council have clearly rejected this willingness to negotiate, raising not only procedural objections against the creation of an ad hoc form of committee (although the Council endlessly creates new ad hoc negotiating bodies for its own purposes) but also substantive objections to holding any discussions at all with the EP on this issue. Presumably the proposal is now doomed – unless there is some last-minute new political initiative.

Frankly, no one comes out of this saga well.

Whether the EP’s far-reaching amendments were a good idea or not, it was obvious for years that the Council would never adopt them, and the EP waited until the eleventh hour before showing any sign of flexibility. Its principled rigidity will lead to less generous maternity for many women, who might have benefited from more modest amendments that could possibly have been agreed years ago.

For the Council, the refusal to accept the EP’s olive branch and even start negotiations on a possible compromise (however unlikely that might be) is petty and vindictive.

For the Commission, the offer to wait for the Council and the EP appears like a cynical passing of the buck, letting the co-legislators take the blame for the failure of the talks.

Why not take an active stance, suggesting possible compromise positions and expending some political effort in trying to bring the other institutions together?

And more broadly, the EU legislative process has failed here. Not just in the obvious sense that there is a failure to do a deal, or that the EP overplayed its hand to an almost cartoonish degree. It failed because of the skulking secrecy that infected the dying months of these (non-)negotiations.

As far I can see from its website, the EP’s women’s committee did not hold any public hearing on this proposal since the Commission issued its ultimatum. Its chair’s letter to the Council is not public (or at any event, it cannot be easily found). Surely this an important enough issue to engage the public? And the Council’s rejection of the EP’s apparent offer to negotiate is only ‘public’ because this document has been leaked.

The basic principles of democratic accountability mean that the Member States should account in public for their refusal to negotiate, and the EP should have disclosed its position and debated it in public. Perhaps the proposed changes to the maternity leave directive were doomed whatever happened – but they should have died with a public bang, not a squalid backroom whimper.

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