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The EU debates increasing maternal leave

Parental leave already generous by US standards, could grow even more. But at what cost?

Danish member of the European Parliament Hanne Dahl (right) takes part with her baby in a voting session in Strasbourg on March 26, 2009. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Some women have a lot more mother’s days than others.

Glory Francke, an American teaching in Sweden, left her job when she had her first daughter in 2002 and remained at home and on salary through the arrival of her second daughter in 2003. Then she went to law school while her husband Filip stayed home nine months with the girls while getting paid. 

Francke, now with a law degree and a little boy to boot, called the arrangement a “fantastic privilege.”

If Edite Estrela gets her way, all moms in the European Union will have more such privilege.

Estrela, a member of the European Parliament (EP) from Portugal’s Socialist party, is leading the charge to establish a minimum standard of 20 weeks of maternity leave at full pay throughout the 27 member states.

It’s legislation like this that spawns criticism of the European “nanny state,” a term used to deride the involvement of government to such a great extent in the private lives of citizens. Given Europe's looming debt crisis, Estrela’s draft has generated loud opposition. 

Due to those voices, a full vote was postponed from March to May to allow for an assessment to be conducted on the financial impact the measures could have on business. That delay is now expected to last at least until July. 

Estrela’s recommendations are a considerable upgrade on the European Commission initiative that, under EU procedure, forms the basis for her report. The proposal by the commission, the EU's administrative arm, would increase the basic minimum of three months leave, established in 1992, to four months. It would recommend but not require full payment of salary for the 18-week period. Both proposals include a compulsory leave of six weeks; that is, new mothers would be required to stay away from their jobs. 

Estrela believes 20 weeks is just the right amount of time to “give women time to recover from their confinement, encourage breastfeeding, and enable a mother to forge a strong bond with her child.” It’s also not so long, she says, that it would be a hindrance to workplace advancement. The recommendations also give fathers two weeks off at full pay.

EU governments always have the right to do more than the minimum standard. The Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania and Slovakia offer mothers up to three years off with varying degrees of pay, for example, while others, including Belgium, Ireland, Malta and Portugal give the three-month EU minimum.