MEPs are on a collision
course with Brussels and national governments after voting to scrap controversial
'opt-outs' from EU legislation on maximum working times.

Accepting a recommendation
from the European Parliament's social affairs committee, MEPs voted by
378 to 262 in favour of amendments that would phase out national governments'
opt-out over three years and see a maximum 48 hour working week regulated
over
a year
rather than the current 17 weeks.

The decision immediately provoked a major
political controversy over the impact of the proposals on Britain's competitiveness.
The UK government, backed by business leaders, has been opposing any move to
end the opt-out.

Tony Blair confirmed he had "no intention whatsoever" of
supporting the proposals, and said he believed the government would be able
to reverse the vote through the Council of Ministers.

Mr Blair said: "The
competition that Europe's economies face from the emerging economies of the
world mean that we simply cannot afford to give up our flexibility."

The
UK prides itself on having a flexible labour market, which, it is often
argued, helps to reduce unemployment. The latest EU statistics show an unemployment
rate of 4.7 percent in the UK (seasonally adjusted), compared with
8.9 percent
in the eurozone.

Business leaders have also condemned MEPs voting to
scrap the opt-out, complaining that Labour party members of the European
Parliament had
betrayed UK interests.

Sir Digby Jones, director general of the CBI
employers' organisation, said: "The Parliament has just voted to take Europe's economy
backwards."

He said that "isolated" abuse of the current system
should be rooted out by employers instead of scrapping the opt-out, which had
worked, in large part, "extremely well".

"Presumably these are
the same MEPs who will be complaining about employers relocating to China and
India in the years to come," he added.

Removal of the working time directive
opt-out would be felt most acutely in the agriculture, construction,
transport, mining and financial services industries. The smallest companies
also feel
hardest hit because they do not have the manpower to provide
coverage for shorter hours or handle the administration of new rules.

Trade
unions have
welcomed
the result, however, which they said showed the European Parliament
was "defending
the European social model and fundamental rights against neo-liberal ideas".

TUC
general secretary Brendan Barber said the vote was a "victory for a common
sense compromise".

"Working more than 48 hours week in, week out,
year in, year out is undoubtedly bad for health and productivity," he
said.

The Transport and General Workers Union also welcomed the vote.

"The
opt-out is harming the health and safety, the family life and the productivity
of British workers. MEPs have done the right thing and the UK government should
support this," said general secretary Tony Woodley.

Ministers
from the 25 member states are likely to discuss the proposals
at a Council
of Ministers
meeting on 3 June, but governments were warned that the size
of the vote in favour of scrapping the opt-out meant Parliament's
position
was unlikely to
change during any future negotiations.

UK officials say
they have support from Germany and Austria and the Baltic states, which
ought to be sufficient
to
block the legislation.

If the Council and the Parliament
have difficulties reaching agreement it could take months, if not
years, to resolve the
situation. Both institutions are likely to hold second
readings, which can be separated
by gaps of up to three months. Ultimately it could
result in a process of conciliation, in which teams of negotiators from
both institutions
attempt to reach a compromise.
If they fail, the legislation falls.

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