European MPs, voting amid a sea of pink and blue baby balloons Wednesday, endorsed a hotly-contested plan to offer new mothers across Europe five months of fully-paid maternity leave.
But conservative parliamentarians as well as the European Commission immediately cautioned that in times of economic constraint, the vote might not translate into action.
Advertisement"If we want to move towards gender equality in the work place," said justice commissioner Viviane Reding, "we must find the right balance between concrete rights for mothers and the current economic realities facing businesses in the EU."
Wednesday's vote, a first reading which now goes to EU governments, proposes raising maternity leave from 14 weeks to 20 while giving fathers across the 27-nation bloc two weeks to spend time with their newborn.
Reding said the European Commission would act as "honest broker" to help wrest an agreement between the proposal adopted by parliament and the EU 27.
"The vote," she said, "is very ambitious, but certainly will not make it easy to find a balanced compromise with the Council (of 27 states) in the near future."
The Commission initially had suggested 18 weeks maternity leave, in line with recommendations by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Some governments have warned the 20-week fully paid leave will add a huge burden to hard-pressed economies, while business leaders say it may work against giving jobs to women in the long term.
Britain for one, which the same day unveiled its harshest spending cuts in decades, says it would more than double its maternity leave bill, adding up to 2.4 billion pounds a year (2.75 billion euros, 3.8 billion dollars).
Britain currently has the European Union's longest maternity leave, at 52 weeks. But it is far from fully paid, with only the first six weeks on 90 percent pay.
German women get 14 weeks, French women 16, and Belgians 15 weeks.
"Maternity must be standardised, it is a service rendered to society but the rules vary from one country to another," said Portuguese Socialist Edite Estrela, who introduced the bill. "Our societies need children."
Welcoming the parliament's support for the bill, she said the costs would be covered if only 1.4 percent more women went to work. "In the UK costs will be covered if just 0.4 percent more women are able to carry on working," she said.
But some MEPs fear the bill could in the long run undermine employment opportunities for women.
"It goes too far," said British liberal Elizabeth Lynne. "We mustn't ruin systems that are functioning. Leave on full pay will stop many young women from finding a job."
Conservative French MEP Pascale Gruny said the vote was "false good news that will wind up being a brake on employing women across Europe."
Once governments have debated the bill, it will return -- perhaps vastly revised -- to the 736-member parliament.
Reding last month warned that the costs of fully paid, 20-week maternity leave over a 20-year period would reach "up to 40 billion euros for France and 57 billion euros for the UK."
Condemning the extra costs, business leaders argue that new statutory leave is unnecessary EU meddling in workable national systems which, in the last instance, may harm employment for women.
"The proposal is expensive and burdensome ... and will increase the complexity of hiring women," said the head of Business Europe, Philippe de Buck.
There are are huge differences across the EU on paternity leave.
Fathers get no time off in Germany, Luxembourg, Austria and Ireland while in Finland they may take three to eight weeks, four in Finland and even 12 in Slovenia, but over eight years.
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