The voting against by the majority of member states, including Malta, to more time off for parents, has dismissed a plan from the European Parliament to extend the basic right to maternity leave from 14 to 20 weeks on full pay.
In October, a majority of MEPs voted in favour of 20 weeks' maternity leave and two weeks' paternity leave, claiming a victory for gender equality and work-life balance. But the Parliament has now faced stiff opposition from the Council of Ministers, where the plan has hit a nerve about national prerogatives to set social policy.
EU employment and social affairs ministers meeting on the 6th of December has made clear their unanimous opposition to the plans.
The conflict has arisen over the update of the 1992 directive on health and safety of pregnant workers. When it presented its proposal in 2008, the European Commission called for the extension of maternity leave from 14 weeks to 18 weeks and a guarantee that women would get at least sick-pay rates.
The Parliament argues that the EU should be more ambitious, reflecting the Union's proposals on gender equality and citing the World Health Organization's advice that new mothers should spend six months breastfeeding.
France, Spain and the UK have been leading the opposition to the Parliament's plans, arguing that they could have a negative effect by discouraging employers from hiring young women.
The plans have also fallen foul of the Swedish government, which feared damage to its ‘gender-blind' system of parental leave. Italy and Sweden are among a minority of countries that could accept the 20-week proposal, but they object to the Parliament's attempts to determine pay rates.
The Parliament has succeeded in uniting the Council around the view that the EU law should be restricted to basic health-and-safety standards, leaving national governments free to develop their own welfare systems. However the Parliament was late in agreeing its position, after deciding to commission an impact assessment of the costs and benefits of maternity leave at 14 and 20 weeks. This study has not satisfied national governments, which are calling for a new impact assessment to be carried out.
Malta thought this is a premature proposal which requires more studies on its impact before it can be considered. Malta also opposed the Parliament's proposal to grant two fully paid weeks of paternal leave to men fathering a newborn - at present fathers have just two days. Malta was in favour of flexibility and the issue should be dealt with directly by member states on an individual basis.
Malta, Hon Dolores Christina said, was in favour of worklife balance and gender initiatives but such a proposal would put an immense financial strain on member states, particularly at a time when they were recovering from the economic crisis.
Arguing against a one-size-fits all approach, she said member states should be allowed to individually set the amount of leave and pay, which should be related to the level of pay given for sick leave and other benefits. Member states who wanted to introduce more benefits to would-be mothers should be allowed to do so gradually.
Maltese women can currently take 14 weeks maternity leave and be paid their full salary. Some EU member states allow more maternity leave than Malta, even up to a year in certain cases. However, the level of pay varies from a percentage of the full pay to unpaid leave.