The Council of Ministers last week rejected amendments proposed by the European parliament in October to increase maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay. 

The decision was part of a policy debate on a draft directive aimed at improving the protection of pregnant workers and workers who have recently given birth or are breastfeeding.

A large majority of ministers (including from the UK) expressed concerns about the cost implications of extending paid maternity leave. Many also expressed the view that a directive should only set minimum standards, and “respect the principle of subsidiarity and the diversity of situations in the different member states”.

Many ministers were also reluctant to include paternity leave within the scope of the draft directive on maternity leave, the main purpose of which is “to improve the health and safety at work of pregnant women and workers who had recently given birth or were breastfeeding, and not to reconcile work, family and private life, which was covered by other EU rules”. 

The Belgian presidency concluded that the Commission's original proposal aiming to extend the minimum length of maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks could be a more acceptable basis for a compromise than the European parliament's amendments.

The Council of Ministers also adopted two sets of “conclusions” on gender equality. The first involved a strategy to boost economic equality between men and women; and the second emphasised the need for a more detailed understanding of the gender pay gap, which stands at 18 per cent in the European Union. 

As a result of adopting these conclusions, member states may “adopt or pursue a comprehensive set of measures to tackle the full range of causes of the gender pay gap linked to labour market inequalities between women and men”. 

They are also “invited to to take the necessary steps to monitor the gender pay gap and monitor progress on a regular basis”. 

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