EU member states have described measures to extend fully paid maternity leave as unworkable.
The European Parliament had given its backing to proposals that would see maternity leave on full pay extended to 20 weeks.
The changes would also allow fathers two full-paid weeks of paternity leave. At the moment, the limit on full-paid maternity is 14 weeks in the EU.
The initial plan, put forward by the European Commission as an amendment to the Pregnant Workers Directive, was to extend fully paid maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks, but with member states able to specify a ceiling which must be equal to statutory sick pay.
However, the Women’s Rights Committee of the European Parliament subsequently agreed to adapt the Commission proposal whereby maternity leave would be extended to 20 weeks on full pay.
Euro MPs supported the 20-week measure during its first reading in the European Parliament.
But EU ministers have said that the plans are impractical, particularly when many European countries are having to pare back governmental spending.
Although no official decision has been taken on the proposals by EU member states, a number of states have voiced worries that the recommendations cannot be introduced in their present form.
The UK government is opposed to the plan. Edward Davey, the employment relations minister, has been lobbying against the changes, arguing that the European Parliament voted for the measures at a time when the UK can least afford them.
Mr Davey said: “The UK and other countries have today made clear that EU rules on maternity rights should not be reformed in a costly and regressive way. The changes proposed by MEPs would restrict a member state’s ability to deliver a system that works in the best interests of parents.
“We have agreed that we must pause for reflection before we determine how, or indeed if, an acceptable compromise can be reached. On the basis of the current proposals it is difficult to see how such a compromise can be achieved.”
Chris Grayling, Minister for Employment, who represented the Government during the meeting where issues such as pensions, gender equality, employment policy and climate change were also discussed, added: “This is an important development. Member states have made plain their concerns. There couldn’t be a clearer sign of the strength of feeling than the joint statement tabled today.”
It is estimated that the proposals put forward by the European Parliament would cost the UK more than £2 billion per year.
The Directive is subject to the co-decision procedure, which means that proposals must be agreed by member states and the European Parliament.
Belgian employment minister Joelle Milquet, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said: “The very, very great majority of member states consider that parliament went too far in offering to extend maternity leave to 20 weeks, with 100 per cent pay – that is not a basis for negotiation.”
Ministers will now have to wait while Belgium draws up a new plan, outlining potential areas for compromise.
Kieran O’Keefe, head of European representation at the British Chambers of Commerce, hailed the discussions as “good progress”.
However, Mr O’Keefe warned that he would be reluctant to say that the UK business community can assume nothing is going to happen.
He added: “The council still wants to try and find an agreement.”
In the UK, new mothers are entitled to a year off work. The first six weeks can be taken on 90 per cent of pay, with a following 33 weeks on statutory maternity pay of £124.88 a week, which is 55 per cent higher than sick pay. The remainder is unpaid.
New fathers can take two weeks of paternity leave at the statutory rate of £124.88.
Businesses are able to claim all or most of the money back from the government.
The UK standard rate of £124.88 per week means that those on the lowest incomes receive the highest proportion of their usual remuneration. For example, women on an annual salary of £10,000 receive 69 per cent of salary as their total maternity pay during the period of paid leave. On a salary of £30,000, women receive 32 per cent of salary, and those on £60,000 receive 23 per cent.
Under the Parliament’s proposals a woman earning £10,000 would only get 20 per cent more maternity pay, whereas a woman earning £60,000 would receive 146 per cent more.
According to the Ordinary Legislative Procedure, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers each adopt a first reading position based on a proposal from the European Commission. The European Parliament adopted its first reading position on the Pregnant Workers Directive on 20 October 2010, and the Council of Ministers is now considering its position. Until the Council adopts its first reading position, these proposals will not progress further.