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No revision to the reduction of the working time directive

(article published in Ouest-France, November 2006) France, Spain and Italy refuse to give up a certain conception of social Europe in favor of an agreement on the reform of the directive on working time.
The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin had indicated, during an interministerial committee devoted to European issues on Monday, the red line not to be crossed. He can be reassured. This line has not been crossed. Meeting once again on the revision of the working time directive, a ten-year-old text, the 25 ministers once again failed to agree.

The main subject of discussion, and disagreement, deals with derogations from the European limit of 48 hours per week. Known by its English name of “opt-out”, a possibility allows, by simple private agreement between an employer and an employee, to work up to 78 hours per week. Widely used across the Channel, where about three million workers are under this system, this formula is now of interest to several other Member States. The second subject, certainly more consensual between diplomats, is of just as much interest to citizens, it is a question of thwarting the judgments of the European Court of Justice on on-call time. Jurisprudence, favorable to employees - any hour of a worker at his place of work must be counted as working time -, but which is expensive for employers, especially public ones (hospitals, retirement homes, etc.).

An ideological divide. Speaking in turn, in a televised debate, the Member States did not hesitate to shout out their differences. On the one hand, seven member states, led by France, want to set a date, even a distant one, for the end of the opt-out. “We cannot support a lesser social candidate” defended, very lyrically, Gérard Larcher, the French Minister of Labor, nicknamed “the leftist” by his colleagues. On the other hand, eighteen states are ready, more or less, to accept a compromise: extending all derogations, regulating them more strictly, and planning to discuss the issue again in five to ten years. “Which amounts to no longer having a common rule” underlines a diplomat.
This quarrel over words may seem futile. It hides, in fact, two totally different conceptions of social Europe, or even of Europe in general. On the one hand, those in favor of freedom of contract, where employer and employee, supposedly equal, decide together on the conditions of employment. On the other hand, the architects of a European labor code, of regulation, claiming the maxim of Lacordaire, a XNUMXth century philosopher "Between the strong and the weak, between the master and the servant, it is freedom which oppresses, it is the law which liberates”.


Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).