The European Commission last week agreed to a request from the social partners for an extension to the usual nine month negotiating period for reviewing the Working Time Directive until 31 December 2012.

The main partners at EU level - representing employers and workers - announced in mid November 2011 that they had jointly decided to launch negotiations in order to review the directive.

The aim is to update the rules on working time to take account of changes in employment “and to better meet the needs of employers and workers in the 21st century”.

Under Article 154 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU), the Commission has to consult with management and labour at EU level before proposing any changes to EU social legislation, including labour law, a process that it started in 2010.

Under Article 154(4) TFEU, the EU level social partners have the right (if they agree to do so) to enter negotiations themselves on what changes should be made, and if they reach an agreement, they are entitled under article 155 to ask for it to be implemented as a directive.

If that happens, the Commission would then have to present the agreement to the EU's Council of Ministers in the form of a directive. Under the Treaty, the Council may either adopt the agreement, or reject it, by qualified majority, but may not amend it. The European Parliament is informed, but is not a co-legislator.

If the social partners do not reach an agreement, the Commission would then come forward with a legislative proposal to amend the directive, based on its previous consultation and impact assessment work.

As the social partners enjoy autonomy under the Treaty as regards the content and structure of their negotiations, the Commission will not put forward a legislative proposal during the period provided under the Treaty for their discussions.