The rules, which extend an existing European directive, would cause widespread upheaval in the National Health Service, provoking a revolution in the training of doctors. They would also have far-reaching repercussions for the transport and fishing industries.
The commission plans, contained in a confidential white paper, could be tabled as early as next month, causing new ferment in the Tory party. The proposals are likely to force John Major into further head-on clashes with his European partners, at a special European mini-summit to be held in October, ahead of the Conservative Party conference.
Britain has already launched a legal challenge to the European Union's existing 48-hour working week directive, arguing the rules breach the spirit of Britain's social chapter opt-out. The judges are expected to rule on the case next month.
When the original directive was drawn up a number of politically sensitive workers were exempted from the first tranche of the legislation. If, as widely expected, the Luxembourg court rejects Britain's attempt to quash the first directive, the commission intends to table its new white paper extending the 48-hour maximum week to the exempted workers. "You could say we will be going for a double-whammy," a commission official said yesterday.
Senior government officials say there is acute nervousness about the pending European Court judgment. The original working hours directive, agreed in 1993, set out rules to ensure the health and safety of workers, including a maximum 48 hours a week, minimum rest periods and a minimum of four weeks' paid holiday a year.
During the negotiations, Britain and some other member states secured exemptions for workers in air, rail, road and sea transport. Fishermen, and those engaged in other work at sea were also exempted, as were "doctors in training".
However, the commission always pledged it would extend the rules to the exempted areas. It argues that it has a duty to propose legislation on working hours under Article 118a of the Treaty of Rome, which requires that member states observe basic health and safety standards, and make improvements "in the working environment". Article 118a was incorporated into the Treaty as part of the Single European Act of 1986, which was strongly supported by the British Government.
For John Major, however, the EU's proposals on working hours have always been deemed a hindrance to competitive working practises.
The Government abstained in 1993 when the first rules were passed, pledging a court battle. Before the European judges the Government has argued that working hours are not a matter of health and safety, and accused the commission of wrongly applying Article 118a. However, even senior government officials recognise the European Court is likely to find that the number of hours spent at work is a health and safety issue.
Britain has also argued that the working hours rules breached the spirit of the social chapter opt-out, which Britain won at Maastricht. However, the working hours directive is not a part of the social chapter.
Should the court reject Britain's claim, Mr Major has pledged a major battle to re-write Article 118a in the current inter-governmental conference on EU reform.
In the meantime, however, the Government faces severe embarrassment. If the court backs the commission, the first directive would have to be implemented by 23 November. After that date, workers in Britain could sue the Government if it fails to comply.Reuse content