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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Is the opt-out safe?

The Hungarian nominee for EU Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner, Laszlo Andor, has had his European Parliament today, and it was not quite as dull as some other hearings - Mr Andor seemed willing to share his views on several issues and actually offer an opinion.

(For anyone who didn't read our briefing on the Spanish EU Presidency, they have pledged that it will be a "factory of rights", suggesting that the employment portfolio might be one to keep an eye on in the next 6 months.)

Andor said that there was a "compelling case to revisit" the Working Time Directive - negotiations on which collapsed last year.

UK Lib Dem MEP, and former member of the conciliation committee during negotiations on the Working Time Directive last year, Liz Lynne asked Mr Andor about the rights of workers to engage in overtime if they so choose, and about the opt-out more generally.

Mr Andor's response: "Since we have economic and monetary union, I think that opt-outs are, in general terms, never the best solution. We always have to think first about what rules can be or in principle could be applied in every country. But if there is some kind of fundamental obstacle to apply an overall regulation in an EU country, yes there is a possibility of opting out. Opting out, perhaps temporarily, we also have to bring in the time dimension when we think about these issues and face difficult negotiations."

"Concerning the voluntary overtime, this is really an issue that needs to be seen. I am not sure that a general conclusion could be reached. My approach would be that if it's voluntary in a certain period, within a broader context of working time regulations, we should still find ways to protect the workers, because it comes from the health and safety considerations. We should give room to voluntary arrangements that exceed regulations with certain conditions."

In her follow up question, Liz Lynne mentioned that the latest unpublished report from the Commission found that 14 states are using the opt-out, and asked him if he thought there was a possibility of bringing forward WTD negotiations on the health sector, separately from other sectors.

Mr Andor's response: "When we bring back the Working Time Directive [negotiations] we need to have a new approach and the sectoral approach can be one of the aspects. Obviously we have to learn from the difficulties of the previous attempt to review the Directive. The opt-out itself is not an abuse. I think the opt-out is a reflection of different realities in different member states and we have to take that into consideration when the discussion next comes up."

So...what conclusions can we draw, if any, on Mr Andor's stance on the Working Time Directive, and negotiations on the opt-out which is sure to come back onto the agenda this year? Well, he doesn't seem to be opposed to the opt-out itself, and recognises that different national characteristics in labour markets mean that certain adjustments need to be made in any EU approach within the field of social and employment policy.

However, he does indicate that he is against opt outs in general, suggesting they are not conducive to the smooth operation of the internal market - and they can only ever be temporary measures. This is surely not good news and would provide further support for our case that decision-making in social and employment policy should be repatriated altogether (since the opt-out has to go sooner or later with Andor's reasoning).

Additionally, the suggestion of a sectoral approach to working time negotiations spells a worrying turn. While there is much evidence that the Directive does not work well with the NHS, and other health services across the EU, the health sector is not the only one people should focus on in this respect.

It is not hard to imagine a scenario where some kind of deal is done on health workers, say by the European Parliament agreeing to a change in the definition of on-call time and rest periods, across the EU, in return for which a qualified majority could be reached within the Council to agree to an end to the opt-out altogether.

As Liz Lynne mentioned, 14 EU countries currently use the opt-out, but mostly out of necessity because the ECJ rulings on the Working Time Directive, with regards to on-call time and rest time, are not easily workable in health services.

But what about other workers that want the ability to take on voluntary overtime as and when they choose, and don't necessarily want a maximum cap on working hours handed down by their MEPs, most of whom they have probably never heard of. For more information on the kind of people that want to retain the opt-out for their industries, see our briefing on the Directive and opt-out.

All in all, there are definitely worse people we could see in the position of Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner than Laszlo Andor, but his appointment may not be good news all round.

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