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Littorin: EU failure will hit patients

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19:44 CET+01:00
Sweden's labour market minister Sven Otto Littorin has said he is "terribly disappointed" by the failure of EU ministers to agree to changes in working time rules.

The current rules are causing a headache for governments around Europe, including Sweden's, because of the way they apply to workers who are on call.

The EU Working Time Directive stipulates that workers in the EU may not work longer than 48 hours a week. A ruling from the European Court in 2002 means that time spent by doctors on call is counted as working time - even if the doctors are at home asleep for much of that time.

The failure to agree to Finnish proposals to reform the working time rules means that the problems for Swedish health authorities remain.

"This can mean increased costs for local health authorities, staff will become dissatisfied and patients will be hit," said Littorin after his first meeting at the EU Council of Ministers.

The government has so far stalled in incorporating the directive into Swedish law, but it will have to do so by the new year.

Littorin said he would arrange meetings with unions and employers as soon as possible, and said he would try to explain the Swedish situation to the European Commission.

"This will be very troublesome for Sweden," he said, and promised to defend the right of Swedish unions and employers to decide working hours for themselves.

The Finnish proposal was sunk by an alliance of France Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, which did not like the fact that the proposal made it possible for countries to make exceptions to the 48-hour rule.

Britain, which currently has an opt-out from the working week directive, was backed up by Germany and a number of eastern European countries in lobbying for the possibility to work longer than 48 hours a week to be made permanent. The French and their allies insisted that any exception should be scrapped within ten years.

"20 of 25 countries wanted to find a solution," said Littorin. He added that there was a very small possibility that a solution could be found ahead of the next meeting of employment ministers on 1st December.

The European Commission says that 23 of the EU's 25 member states are effectively breaking the working time directive. Many of the problems would have been solved if agreement had been reached, but the Commission is now threatening to take the 23 members to the European Court.

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