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EUROPEAN UNION

‘Don’t force mothers to stay at home’

The European Commission's proposed new directive on maternity leave is well-meaning but fatally flawed, argues Minister for EU Affairs Birgitta Ohlsson.

'Don't force mothers to stay at home'

Though the year is 2010, in the eyes of many European politicians parenthood remains synonymous with motherhood. The EU Commission has proposed for maternity leave to be compulsory for the first six weeks after childbirth regardless of the wishes of the mother. Put simply, new mothers are to be banned from working. The issue is now in the hands of the democratically elected European Parliament, which is set to vote on the maternity leave directive in March.

The Alliance government is critical of the proposal as it risks diluting Swedish equality. On a personal level, if the proposal were to come into force it would prevent me from working. As a mother-to-be I would have had to turn down my new job as Swedish Minster for EU Affairs.

At the same time, we must bear in mind that the legislative proposal has a noble aim. For example, the legislative package promotes the right of mothers to take eighteen weeks’ leave. In many member states, parental leave is woeful. In Austria, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, for instance, mothers’ right to leave is less than eighteen weeks. But a maternity leave directive incorporating forced leave is the wrong path to take.

The directive is also problematic in that it only mentions mothers as parents. We have to encourage parents to share both their parental leave and responsibility for their children. Europe needs more egalitarian dads, and the Commission’s proposal is sending the wrong signals.

Family policies are dreadful in many parts of Europe despite the fact that equality between the sexes is a commonly held value in the EU. It is also a necessary prerequisite if we are to achieve the Union’s goals for growth, employment and social cohesion.

Millions of women in Europe can’t work at all, or at least not as much as they’d like to, because they are forced to take responsibility for their families. And several of the EU’s member states don’t offer childcare for children under the age of three. Also, state care for the elderly is often minimal, which means women often feel obliged to take care of ageing family members. Furthermore, joint taxation – which holds women back from the marketplace – remains a fact of life in many countries.

Many women in the EU now choose either not to have children and focus on their careers, or to give up their careers entirely when their children are born. Statistics show the effects: the EU has the world’s best educated housewives. With ever more elderly men and women, the Union’s population risks turning into Jurassic Park unless more children are born. Access to childcare is crucial if more people are to be able to combine their family and professional lives. In my view, we should not legislate on childcare at the EU level, but more EU countries do need to recognise the connection between childcare and economic growth.

Getting more women into the workplace is a pressing challenge for the EU. The untapped potential for higher GDP could be put to good use: more people working and paying tax would bolster the financing of our common welfare in a competitive global climate. Currently, an average of just six out of ten women in the EU are in gainful employment, dropping as low as four out of ten in certain countries. Men earn almost 20 percent more than women, and four times more women than men work part time.

Women in the EU also earn less than men, meaning that women’s economic freedom is more limited. Ever since the 1700s, power over one’s own wallet has been a cornerstone of liberal feminism. It’s high time that politicians in Europe were inspired by our history. Women should not have to depend on their partners for an income.

The EU has official goals stating that women and men should have the same opportunities when it comes to combining work life, private life, and family life. It’s time for Europe’s politicians to start delivering. At my first EU meeting as Sweden’s EU minister on February 22nd, I raised the argument that an equality perspective must become part of the Union’s growth strategy. I am pleased to have received the support of EU Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and Spanish Foreign Minster Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Increased equality is one of the EU’s great challenges and more people need to wake up. Sweden is a pioneer when it comes to feminist issues, with radical family policies in an international perspective. We should not point the finger but we can inspire other countries in the EU. It should be a voluntary right for parents, not maternity leave by force.

A Swedish version of this article was published in Aftonbladet (24/2). Translation: The Local.

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Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU’s minimum wage plan?

EU labour ministers meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss the European Commission's planned minimum wage directive. Why is the proposal causing such unease in Sweden?

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU's minimum wage plan?
Customers visit a branch of McDonalds in Stockholm. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

What’s happening on Monday? 

EU ministers responsible for employment and social affairs, including Sweden’s Eva Nordmark, will meet in Brussels for a two day meeting at which they hope to adopt a European Council position on a directive imposing “adequate minimum wages” on all EU countries. Once the Council, which represents member states, has agreed a common position, it will begin negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Commission. 

What’s Sweden’s position on the minimum wage directive? 

Sweden has been, along with Denmark, one of the most vocal opponents of the directive, arguing that it threatens the country’s collective bargaining model, in which unions and employers set wages without government interference. 

But on Friday, the government dropped its opposition, together with country’s umbrella union, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, arguing that a compromise proposal put forward by the European Commission would protect Sweden’s wage autonomy. 

A majority of the members of the Swedish parliament’s employment committee are backing the government’s new stance, but three opposition parties, the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the Sweden Democrats, are opposed to the change in position. 

“I am extremely happy that there is broad support and majority backing for us to continue with the negotiations, to stand up for what we have come to so far, and do everything we can to protect the Swedish wage-setting model,” Sweden’s employment minister Eva Nordmark (S) said after a meeting with the employment committee on Friday. 

READ ALSO: Why Sweden doesn’t have a minimum wage and how to ensure you’re fairly paid

Why did Sweden make its dramatic last-minute u-turn? 

Sweden’s government judges that, after the compromise, the directive will no longer mean that Sweden is forced to bring in a statutory minimum wage. 

“I consider, together with experts in the civil service and experts in the unions and employer organisations, that there is no requirement for Sweden to bring in a statutory minimum wage,” Nordmark told TT. 

She added that agreeing to sign up to the directive would give Sweden the ability to take a deeper part in the negotiations giving it the power to make sure that important exceptions are made for Sweden. 

Denmark, however, is still resolved to say ‘no’ to the directive. 

Surely a minimum wage is a good thing? Isn’t Sweden supposed to be a high-wage economy? 

Sweden is certainly a high-wage economy, but that is largely thanks to its model of collective bargaining, under which wages are generally set by negotiations between employees and employers for each sector. 

If the directive sets a precedent allowing governments, either at a national or EU level, to interfere in this process, or for those who disagree with the result of the collective bargaining agreement to appeal to government entities, it could undermine the Swedish system. 

Who is still worried? 

More or less everyone. While the Swedish Trade Union Confederation is supporting the government’s decision, its vice chair Therese Guovelin, described the European Commission’s compromise proposal as simply “the least bad compromise proposal” the union had seen.

She has previously described the European Parliament’s position that the directive should apply to the entire European Union as “a catastrophe”.

“That would mean that a disgruntled employee who is not part of the union, could take their case to court, and would then end up at the EU Court, and it would then be them who would decide on what should be a reasonable salary,” she explained. “In Sweden, it’s the parties [unions and employers’ organisations] that decide on that.”

Tobias Billström, group leader for the Moderate Party, said he was concerned at the role of the European Court in the directive. 

“There are big risks with this,” he told TT. “The EU court might decide to interpret this directive as applying across the board, and then we might end up with what we wanted to avoid. The Moderates have as a result been against this development, and it’s important that Sweden gets to decide itself on the Swedish labour market.”

What might happen now? 

The European Parliament might try to remove the wording and the exemptions which Sweden hopes will allow its employers and unions to retain control of wage-setting. 

Mattias Dahl, chief executive of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents employers’ groups, said that the government needed to stand its ground in the upcoming negotiations, reiterating that he would have preferred that the European Commission had not sought to give itself such a role in the Labour Market.  

Nordmark said that Sweden did not intend to back down to the parliament. 

“These are important red lines for us. If there are demands from the European Parliament that push in a different direction, we can lean on the Swedish opinion and what we stand for,” she said. 

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