The new rules would require that women stay home with a newborn child for six weeks, rather than the current 14 days.
“This can stop women from assuming powerful positions,” Sweden’s EU minister Birgitta Ohlsson told the TT news agency.
The bill also includes a provision giving women the right to receive maternity leave benefits at full salary for up to 20 weeks, as well a clause allowing fathers to take two weeks of leave if they so desire.
Ohlsson objected to the fact that mothers would be forced to stay at home for six weeks, a requirement which could have torpedoed her changes of assuming her ministerial posting as the appointment came shortly before she gave birth to her first child last summer.
Sweden, which already has more generous parental leave policies than those being discussed in Brussels, argues it’s wrong to make decisions about family policy at the EU level.
The Swedish government is also critical of the EU perception that assumes parenting is primarily the role of the mother, rather than a responsibility that should be shared equally between men and women.
Much of the language in the bill assumes that women should be at home with their children, rather than men.
The Left Party’s Eva-Britt Svensson, who chairs the EU parliament’s equality committee, has likened the EU bill to “housewife arrest”, according to the Dagens Nyheter (DN) daily.
“It puts young women’s employment changes at risk,” she told the paper.
The outcome of the vote remained uncertain up until the last minute as the issue of parental leave – or maternity leave as it is called at the EU-level – cuts across traditional political divisions.
Countries with less generous leave provisions were concerned about the additional costs of extending maternity benefits, while unions and feminists expressed concerns that the bill would make it harder to enter the workforce.
Svensson was nevertheless positively surprised over the results of the vote.
“It was much better than I could have imagined,” she told TT.
While she was pleased that maternity benefits were extended to 20 weeks, she found herself unable to support the bill entirely.
“I can’t vote for making it obligatory for women to be at home for six weeks,” she said.
Passage in the EU parliament isn’t the final step for the bill, however, as EU member state governments will now have their say, with both the UK and Austria already having expressed reservations about the increased costs associated with the measure.