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26/08/2011 The Council of the EU does not endorse extending maternity leave

Whether or not to extend maternity leave is an issue that is dividing the Parliament and the Council of the EU. When called to vote on the subject on Friday June 17th, European ministers did not follow the advice of MEPs. The length of maternity leave granted to working pregnant women varies significantly from one Member State to another. While the European average is between 16 and 25 weeks, some Member States provide much longer maternity leave periods.

The EP is in favour of a 20-week maternity leave

When they came together on June 17th to debate extending maternity leave, the Council of the EU and the European Parliament made no progress on the matter. Edite Estrela, Parliament’s rapporteur on maternity leave, criticised the lack of progress made by Member States in modernising the existing legislation on the subject. The debate was dominated by the divergent views among European ministers. Some even suggested giving up trying to find agreement on the matter. The cost of extending maternity leave brought strong reactions from several ministers.

The European Union is harmonising the right to maternity leave within the framework of its employment and social protection policy. A 1992 directive regarding pregnant workers sets measures for promoting balance between work life and family life based on the International Labour Organisation’s maternity protection convention of 2000. The length provided for by the directive is 14 weeks. Two of these weeks must be taken before or after the birth.

In October 2008, the European Commission proposed a review of this legislation and wanted to bring the current minimum length from 14 to 18 weeks. The European Parliament wanted to go even further and proposed leave of 20 weeks with 100% financing for the first six weeks and 85% financing for the rest.

At the vote on first reading, in October 2010, the Parliament amended the Commission’s initial proposal to allow for a 20-week maternity leave that is fully financed and to introduce paternity leave of two weeks. MEPs also added clauses aiming to end discrimination against pregnant women at work and to protect their health and safety in the workplace.

But the matter was once again on the agenda on June 17th and could not be resolved. “I regret that some Member States expressed once again a disrespectful position towards the European Parliament. Member States are not taking into due consideration the large majority reached in the Parliament or the results of the latest Eurobarometer on this issue”, said Edite Estrela.

Defenders of the proposed extension of maternity leave will have to hope that the next EU presidency will be able to find agreement on the matter. According to the EP rapporteur, Poland has “already shown determination and made some efforts to work towards an agreement with the European Parliament”. According to a recent Eurobarometer survey carried out in the EU, almost one in eight (78%) are in favour of fully paid maternity leave of 20 weeks.

Inequality of leave among Member States

The length of maternity leave granted to working pregnant women varies significantly from one Member State to the next. While the European average is between 16 and 25 weeks, some Member States provide much longer maternity leave periods.

For example, Slovakia gives 28 weeks (for a first child without medical complications), the United Kingdom and Ireland give 26 weeks and Bulgaria gives 54 weeks.

On the other hand, Sweden does not provide maternity leave as such but gives prenatal leave of eight weeks. However, it is still the most generous Member State in this matter as it has a very flexible system of parental leave which can be transferred to the father of the child and can be as long as 75 weeks.

France provides 16 weeks of maternity leave as do Spain, Austria and Luxembourg.

Parental leave at European level

Within the framework of its policy to fight discrimination and to promote equal opportunities, the European Commission adopted a directive in 1996 regarding parental leave.

This directive gives parental leave to all parents, male or female, so that they can take care of their child for at least three months up until an age decided on and defined by the Member States. It also gives workers the right to be absent from work if their dependant is ill or has an accident. 

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