- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

STRASBOURG, France (AP) — Long-haul truckers driving through the night. Exhausted surgeons with scalpels. Overworked firefighters.

Amid concern that worker fatigue leads to accidents on the job, the European Union Parliament voted yesterday to abolish loopholes that give member states — especially Britain — a way around the bloc’s 48-hour maximum workweek.

The dispute strikes at the heart of a growing debate within the EU on balancing labor and leisure, profits and safety.

The measure would get rid of a clause that allows employees to work longer hours if they agree with their employer to do so. It still requires backing from EU governments to become law, and Britain may have enough countries on its side to block it.

Still, yesterday’s vote is likely to embolden Britain’s strong Euroskeptic camp in a crucial year of referendums on a proposed European constitution that envisions ever closer European integration.

In London, Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the proposed labor changes interfere with the “freedom of choice of the average British subject and that is something we’ve got to stop.”

“France and Germany are saddled with these rigid labor policies and huge unemployment, and here we are with the most successful economies in Europe, we’ve got the most flexible labor market, people earn good money — and here is Brussels trying to do away with it,” Mr. Jones said.

Britain’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper commented that Britons saw EU lawmakers as a “Eurocracy throttling the life out of Britain” — but it went on to defend aspects of the new labor proposal.

Countries like France and Sweden have long believed in social protections aimed largely at guaranteeing balance between work and private life. France had a 35-hour workweek — much shorter than the EU’s 48-hour maximum — until lawmakers watered down that legislation in March.

In contrast, Britain bases its business culture on an American model that keeps government interference at a minimum in the belief that freedom promotes growth and opportunity. New EU members in Eastern Europe also want flexible work rules to help them become as rich as more established EU states.

Some European countries use the labor loophole mainly for their health care and emergency services. But in Britain it is widely used across the private and public sector.

Advocates in the EU Parliament of the proposed labor reform said yesterday’s vote was aimed at restoring public confidence in European social values.

“EU citizens are asking what the EU can do for them, and this is one of the things,” said Alejandro Cercas, the Spanish Socialist member of the European Parliament who drafted the labor legislation. “Citizens want a social Europe.”

Lawmakers voted for the opt-out to be phased out over three years following the adoption of a new EU Working Time Directive, expected in 2007. Socialist, Labor and Green deputies supported scrapping it, while the European People’s Party and some independent lawmakers voted against it by 378-262. There were 15 abstentions.

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