EU: can the Maternity Leave Directive be rescued?

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As the new EU commissioners prepare to take office, a bill to reform a 22 year-old directive on maternity leave is fighting its way back onto the agenda.

This July, the proposed Maternity Leave Directive was dismissed by the European Commission as “red tape” and was placed in a legislative graveyard known as the regulatory fitness and performance programme (REFIT).

First proposed by the Commission in 2008, the revised directive was adopted by a large majority in the European Parliament on 20 October 2010.

It aimed to extend fully-paid maternity to at least 20 weeks, strengthen protection for female workers dismissed from work on return from maternity leave and provide fully-paid paternity leave, for same-sex couples also, for two weeks.

But in a move described by supporters of the directive as “a classic example of the backlash against women’s’ rights and gender equality in Europe,” several EU member states proceeded to block the passage of the directive for almost three years at the European Council by refusing to pass it on to the European Parliament for a second reading.

“During the conflict between the Council and the Parliament we lost the opportunity to raise the working conditions of women and mothers,” Alessandra Moretti, the Socialists’ rapporteur for the directive told Equal Times.

With Parliament back in session, Moretti says the focus now is to get the directive back on the agenda.

“There is a renewed dialogue between the two EU institutions that could lead to a positive outcome in the next few months,” she said.

The Commissioner-designate for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Vera Jourova, was recently grilled in the European Parliament by members of the committee on women’s rights and gender equality.

Following a three-hour question and answer session, Jourova was called to reply in writing to a number of additional questions, including how she plans to revive the suspended maternity leave directive.

Jourova said: “I will fully support all efforts to revitalise the negotiations. It is my hope that with the strong support of the newly elected European Parliament and the efforts of the Italian Presidency we will create together the necessary new momentum in this file,” signaling a strong commitment towards a new phase in the negotiations between the Parliament and the Council.


Important safeguard

Supporters of the revised directive say it is an important measure towards safeguarding gender equality in Europe.

“It is really important that this proposal is not withdrawn,” Iratxe Garcia Perez, Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality told Equal Times.

“This new legislation should be in force as soon as possible, because it reinforces protection for mothers and contributes to the balance of family with work life, and to equality between women and men,” she said.

Cinzia Sechi, a policy advisor with the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), agrees: “Adopting a stronger maternity directive would send a positive message to European citizens and show that European institutions are able to reach a consensus on issues that matter to them in their daily lives.

“Pregnancy and maternity security are in fact essential for achieving gender equality and the protection of women’s rights.”

But in order to get the directive passed, it seems likely that a number of concessions will have to be made.

However, supporters are concerned that a number of progressive measures in favour of pregnant women and new parents risk being lost in the negotiations.

“The changes introduced by the European Parliament were of vital importance. In its previous form the directive suffered from tight conditionality and did not cover the new labour market reality, such as precarious working conditions and short term contracts,” said Mary Collins, policy officer at the European Women’s Lobby.

“Also, it did not ensure that women were paid their full salary, nor did it include fathers and same-sex couples.”

But opponents of the revised directive claim that 20 weeks of fully-paid maternity leave would be unsustainable for both businesses and crisis-hit state funds.

Furthermore, they argue that a complete removal of the maternity directive from the legislative process wouldn’t actually make any difference to the lives of female workers in the EU.

“Such a withdrawal would not have any consequences as we already have an existing directive on maternity leave, thus every member state has its own rules according to their national systems,” says Angelika Niebler, a German centre-right MEP.

Niebler says that the revised directed goes “far beyond what is acceptable, taking into account that member states have completely different social security systems which simply cannot be harmonised”.

The influential business lobby group Business Europe has refused to comment on the topic, citing its blockage in the Council as a reason.