Millions of civil servants across the European Union could be given the right to ignore emails and telephone calls from colleagues after work hours under a plan put forward by France and Belgium.
The proposal comes amid concerns that workplace reforms introduced because of the coronavirus pandemic have led to government employees working longer hours from home.
France and Belgium have already legislated to introduce the “right to disconnect” to ensure workers can escape from smartphones, tablets and computers in their homes.
Their push for a similar ruling to be introduced at an EU level would offer the same right to up to nine million civil servants on the continent.
But the European Commission would likely face significant opposition if it decided to press ahead with the proposal.
“We all know the French and Belgians have a very different attitude when it comes to work,” said one sceptical European diplomat.
Such an intervention would likely prompt accusations of “overreach”, another source said, as member states have sole competence over the social rights enforced in their countries.
‘The EU has bigger fish to fry’
Cristian Terhes, a Eurosceptic Romanian MEP, said: “There is a huge energy and cost of living crisis due to inept European Commission policies which made the EU dependent on Russian gas.
“The EU has bigger fish to fry than to, in a pure communist style, micro-manage the employment regulations of member states.
“The EU should focus on removing the causes of an energy shortage, like closing the coal mines or high carbon tax, rather than interfering in national legislation at every opportunity.”
Close to 10 national capitals would likely challenge the plans if the Commission decided to take on the Franco-Belgian proposal.
However, it is uncertain whether the EU’s executive body would do so in the middle of having to deal with the mounting energy crisis triggered by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Petra De Sutter, a Belgian deputy prime minister, and Stanislas Guerini, France’s public transformation minister, this week signed a deal with unions in 18 European countries on their proposals, dubbed “A new way of working”.
The pair said their next step would be to present the plans, which contain 49 other measures to improve workers’ rights for civil servants, to Nicolas Schmit, the European Commissioner for social rights.
“It is intended that this agreement will be used as a basis for passing binding European legislation, which will apply to millions of Europeans working for their government,” Ms De Sutter said.
The right to disconnect
She said workplace reforms introduced in the wake of Covid should not be limited to the private sector, urging the Commission to embrace change for public services.
While working with unions to draw up her plans, Ms De Sutter said civil servants from across the bloc had asked for a better balance between work and private life now that working from home was the norm.
She also wants governments to ensure their employees’ homes are better equipped to match the standard of their office workplaces.
Earlier this year Belgium became the first European country to offer employees the right to opt for a four-day working week, as well as the right to disconnect.
France was the first country to grant people the possibility to unplug from work in 2017 as part of a plan to prevent burn-out.
In both countries, the digital invasion is seen as an attack on the sacrosanct work-life balance enjoyed by employees.
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