The European Parliament has 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.
Despite the vote, the change can only become law if other EU governments agree to it. This will entail lengthy negotiations, and the new legislation can only return to MEPs for a second reading when a majority of member state governments gives their backing.
The UK government is against the plan.
The Department of Business suggested that several EU governments oppose the amendment, too, on the grounds of its cost.
A spokesman for the Department said: “We know other member states share our concerns about the real costs of this directive.”
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.
But one leading business group argued that, if they become law, the rules could cost £2.5 billion a year to implement.
David Frost, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: “The vote in the European Parliament will leave business dismayed. That the European Parliament has gone to the trouble and expense of conducting an impact assessment only to ignore the findings will seem incredible to our members.
“This directive should be about setting minimum health and safety standards for pregnant workers, not adding new payroll costs for overburdened companies and national social security systems.
“The idea that employers or our public finances can bear an additional £2.5 billion per year is deeply out of touch with reality. UK businesses will be hoping that member states can now curb the worst excesses of these proposals.”