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UK working time opt-out holds
Workers in the EU put in an average of 40 hours per week
France, Italy and Spain have barred changes to EU working time rules because the UK would have kept its opt-out from the 48-hour working week.
Ministers from the 25 EU countries were debating a Finnish proposal, which would have cut the maximum hours people could work, even under the opt-out.
But the deal only contained vague words about ending the opt-out in future.
The lack of a deal means that a bid to exclude doctors' "inactive" on-call time from working hours has collapsed.
Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla said he would now start prosecuting countries that were in breach of the directive in its original form - because of their policies on doctors' on-call time, or for other reasons.
"We need to be logical... if a country does not respect the treaty we must bring proceedings against it," he said.
"We should move as fast as possible."
It is reported that only two member states are currently fully in compliance.
The UK, as the country which has fought hardest against the amended directive over the last two-and-a-half years, could be in the front line for legal action.
Germany, which takes over the EU presidency in January, has said it will not deal with the dossier, so the issue will remain unresolved at least until July 2007.
The European working time directive guarantees workers at least four weeks' paid annual leave, a minimum period of 11 hours' rest every 24 hours, at least one day's rest per week, and a rest break if the working day is longer than six hours.
Q&A: Working time directive
It also says night workers should work a maximum of eight hours, on average, in every 24, and entitles them to health assessments.
The UK has fought moves to end the opt-out, on the grounds that labour market flexibility promotes economic growth and lowers unemployment.
Other countries, including France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus argue that the opt-out is bad for workers' health, and gives the UK a competitive advantage.
However, most countries face difficulties complying with a European court ruling, which says that time spent at work on call counts as working time, even when the worker is asleep.
The amended law - both in the form proposed by the European Commission and the form now proposed by Finland, the current holder of the EU presidency - stated clearly that inactive time on call does not count as working time.
In the UK, this principle is key to government plans for reform of the health service.
Amendments tabled by the Finnish government would also have cut the absolute maximum working week - for people using the opt-out - from 78 hours to 60.
They would also schedule a review of the opt-out, with a view to its "gradual ending" at a later date.
There were reports before the meeting that the UK might have been prepared to accept the Finnish proposal if the absolute maximum working week had been set at 65 or 70 hours, and if there had been legal safeguards to prevent courts overturning the opt-out.
Some professions, such as company executives and emergency workers, would still have been exempt.
Under the Finnish proposal, a worker's 48-hour working week would have been averaged out over a reference period of up to 12 months, with the precise period being set by national governments.
This would have enabled most employers operating in markets where there are seasonal peaks to avoid violations.
The maximum working week of 60 hours, for those making use of the opt-out, would have been averaged over three months.
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