- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

BRUSSELS (AP) — Negotiations to end Britain’s decade-old opt-out from the European Union’s 48-hour maximum workweek collapsed in acrimony yesterday.

Rival camps led by Britain and France failed to overcome deep divisions on whether the EU should have a greater say over closely guarded national labor legislation.

Finland’s labor minister, Tarja Filatov, who presided over the talks, said France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus held firm to their demands that a 1993 EU labor law should be updated to include phasing out Britain’s exemption over 10 years.

“I don’t see any sense for us to continue,” Mrs. Filatov told her EU counterparts after the five nations rejected her final compromise, which did not include a date forcing an end to Britain’s opt-out or tightening measures to prevent others sidestepping the rules.

Mrs. Filatov had warned that failure to reach a deal would “question the credibility” of EU governments’ ability to adhere to EU laws and to address a possible shortage of emergency workers, notably the need for more on-call doctors in hospitals.

Mrs. Filatov presented a compromise plan that would have allowed workers the flexibility to work up to 60 hours a week but only temporarily for a maximum of three months.

The debate on work hours has become the focus of a divisive struggle over whether the EU should continue to pursue common social and welfare policies, which were first agreed to in the early 1990s as a way to level the economic playing field across Europe.

EU Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla said the five nations’ resistance to more flexible rules, allowing certain opt-outs, “represents a deterioration” of social conditions in Europe. “This is not social progress,” he said.

He warned that he would now be forced to take legal action against most EU governments for failure to properly implement the 1993 law. Only Luxembourg and Italy have fully enforced the 48-hour workweek.

“There are 23 countries which are in an illegal situation,” Mrs. Filatov said. She acknowledged that Finland also violates the law by using loopholes to allow emergency and health workers to work more hours than are legally allowed.

Negotiations have dragged on since 2004 to close loopholes in the labor law that have led to widespread complications for many EU governments trying to enforce the 48-hour workweek.

In practice, most EU nations have ignored the law for years, allowing employees to work well above the legal limit, especially doctors, police officers and other emergency services.

German Deputy Employment Minister Gerd Andres said if his country had strictly enforced the EU law, it would never have been able to find enough police for this past summer’s World Cup series. Law-enforcement officers were on call on a 24-hour basis, every day of the tournament, he said.

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