How the faceless European politicians in Brussels are trying to drag the U.K. down to their level! Where is our sovreignty now?
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The European Parliament voted on Wednesday to scrap Britain's fiercely guarded opt-out from the EU's 48-hour maximum work week, reopening a long-running ideological battle with London.
The European Union legislature voted by 378 to 262 with 15 abstentions to abolish after three years a provision under which governments can allow firms to ignore the limit.
Britain, which regards flexible labour laws as vital for economic efficiency, voiced dismay but said the vote was only a stage in a complex legislative process and the proposals would now go back to the executive European Commission for revision.
"We are very disappointed that they have taken this decision," Employment Minister Gerry Sutcliffe told BBC radio. "I think that the European employment ministers ... will accept our position."
A coalition of Socialist, Greens and Christian Democratic lawmakers voted to tighten the rules on working time in the name of health and safety, endorsing a report by Spanish Socialist Alejandro Cercas that said the opt-out had led to major abuses.
Members of the Labour party in the EU assembly defied Tony Blair to vote with the abolitionists despite intensive phone lobbying by cabinet ministers.
"The force of the argument was such that every one of the Labour MEPs ... pledged to vote with the Socialist group on this," Labour MEP Stephen Hughes told Reuters.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats said the revolt in Strasbourg showed Blair was losing his grip on his own party, which was re-elected last week with a slashed majority.
The Trades Union Congress says around 3.75 million people in Britain work more than 48 hours a week, among them junior hospital doctors in the National Health Service, truck drivers, workers on North Sea oil rigs, and many managers.
Member governments must approve a final version of the legislation by qualified majority in the EU Council, and Britain will need to put together a blocking minority of several countries if it is to preserve its opt-out.
"It will only be agreed if parliament, the member states and the Commission can agree on the same version," a British spokeswoman in Brussels said.
Commission spokeswoman Katharina von Schnurbein said the EU executive did not agree with parliament's bid to scrap the opt-out 36 months after a new law comes into force, and would maintain its proposal to allow individuals to opt voluntarily to work longer where there was no collective agreement.
London hopes for support from new ex-communist east European member states who oppose stricter labour laws.
Right-wing Polish MEP Konrad Szymanski said in a statement: "Today's vote is a black day for the European enterpreneurship. In its shape approved today, the directive would become one of the most economically harmful elements of the European law.
"They have decided to impose the worst legacy of the French and German economies on those countries which do not want that, such as Poland, Britain and Ireland."
The Confederation of British Industry, an employers' group, said abolition could cost millions of jobs and urged the government to stand firm.
"There is no place for handcuffs in a competitive economy -- as long as employees work in safe conditions and have freedom of choice they should also have the freedom to work, " CBI director-general Digby Jones said in a statement.
"Reports of widescale UK employer abuse of the opt-out are grossly exaggerated ... How can Europe possibly hope to compete with the likes of China and India in the 21st century global economy?" he said.
In another headache for governments, parliament voted that all on-call time should be counted as working time, endorsing a 2003 EU court judgement which said that even if doctors were asleep when on-call, it still counted.
The European Commission had proposed that doctors could no longer count time spent on call in hospital as working time if they were not actually deployed, an effort to ease the burden on governments and the health sector.
The assembly did give some leeway, suggesting that inactive parts of on-call time could be calculated differently to comply with the 48 hours maximum working week.