Why British stand is just political charade

Opposition to minimal rights doomed from the start
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In June 1993, David Hunt, then Minister for Employment, walked out of a Luxembourg council room to tell the the BBC that he had secured a victory for Britain in the heated negotiations over new European laws on working hours.

He boasted that the teeth of the directive had been drawn. More than three years later, Britain is struggling to extract the same troublesome molar.

The long battle over directive 93/104/EC, setting rules for a maximum 48-hour working week, as well as paid holiday and breaks, is another example of a doomed British campaign to prevent European integration.

This campaign has been especially inglorious as the battleground has been a directive which does little more than offer some workers the right to a decent amount of time off. Furthermore, in its desperation to stand tough in the face of likely defeat tomorrow, the Government has been spreading more and more disinformation about the way the directive was negotiated and its claimed threat to jobs.

The working-hours directive was first proposed in 1990 as part of a tranche of provisions. Britain made a political point of opposing it as too costly for employers. The reality was there was nothing the Government could do to stop the measure because it had no veto.

The Commission proposed the directive under a health and safety provision of the treaty - article 118a - which is governed by qualified majority voting. As so often happens, therefore Britain set out to try to claw back powers which it had already signed away.

The best the Government could hope to do was to water down the directive as it was being negotiated and this ministers successfully did. By the time the law was ready for signing in November 1992, so many concessions had been made that Mr Hunt was able to declare it "toothless". Britain did not even vote against the directive, it abstained, while promising a legal challenge on the grounds that working hours were not a matter of health and safety.

The Government today presents the directive as a measure which forces all countries to pass laws obliging employers to fix a maximum 48-hour working week. Small factories will be closing down up and down Britain, it is claimed.

In fact, every member state has a large degree of flexibility in how they implement the directive. If a particular government wants to interpret the directive to ensure all workers work a maximum of 48 hours a week, it can do so. It can also exclude groups of workers, such as those employed in transport and junior doctors. Furthermore, the 48-hour rule can be "voluntary". If a particular workforce agrees to work more than 48 hours, the directive need not apply. The 48-hour-a- week rule can also be calculated in some circumstances over a period of up to a year.

As the working hours directive was being finalised in 1992, the Maastricht negotiations were coming to completion and Britain won its opt out from the social chapter. The working hours directive had nothing to do with the social chapter, having been proposed two years earlier under the separate health and safety provision.

Yet today, as they demonise Brussels, the Euro-sceptics, encouraged by the Government, outrageously suggest that enacting the working hours directive under article 118a was a ploy to get around Britain's social chapter opt-out.

Mr Major may now wish that he had never launched the legal challenge to the working hours directive, which looks set to produce a European defeat for him in the run-up to the general election.

The court tomorrow may offer Britain a few crumbs, perhaps ruling that some elements of the directive should be further restricted. But it is hard to see that Europe's judges can agree with a government which claims that working hours is not a matter of health and safety.