It was close, but no cigar for the UK Presidency as it struggled to broker a compromise among EU social ministers on a revised Working Time Directive at the last Employment and Social Policy Council meeting held under its chairmanship on December 8. Following years of negotiations, the main dividing issue among member states remained the 'opt-out' from a maximum 48-hour workweek, mainly supported by Britain and refused by France.

The UK Presidency was determined to push for an agreement, but the final compromise position was rejected by 15 out of 25 countries, including Germany, France, Spain, Sweden and several 'new' member states. Still, a separate 'camp' of countries including Poland and other new member states supported it, praising the UK for inroads made in talks that dragged on in an afternoon marathon debate that breached the daily time limit of interpreters.

"We have made the most progress so far, but we are not yet ready to agree on the whole text", commented British Trade and Industry Minister Alan Johnson, who chaired the meeting in Brussels. Yet despite efforts made by the UK delegation to revise its own proposal during the course of the talks, ministers failed to agree on whether or not a date for the eventual scrapping of the opt-out' sould be spelled in the revised Directive.

On top of this, they ended in stalemate over the issue of workers' contractual time limits. In a move which seemed to surprise the UK Presidency, several countries finally blocked the compromise proposal due to provisions...

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