LONDON — How much work is too much work? It's a question that the British and the Europeans are set to tangle over, and it's the latest wrinkle in a historically testy British-European Union relationship.
The British - who are comparative workaholics - are chafing at a European Court ruling requiring Britain to comply with an EU directive that limits the average work week to 48 hours.
The ruling is particularly irksome to British managers and company heads, who during the the 1980s grew used to requiring workers to put in long hours, regardless of their wishes.
In fact, the British work longer hours than any other EU nation, according to European Commission figures. They average 43.7 hours weekly. (Americans, by contrast, work just 39.1 hours.) The French average 39.9 hours, the Germans 39.5, and the Belgians 38.2.
But if the EU has its way, British workers would not only be limited to 48 hours per week, but would also have a minimum rest period of 11 consecutive hours out of every 24, and a minimum rest period of 24 hours every week. Workers could also demand three weeks paid vacation a year, rising to four weeks by 1999.
The directive says workers can work longer than 48 hours if they agree to, but they cannot be forced to.
Among Brits, there is disagreement over the issue.
"Those who work long hours do so as a matter of individual choice," says Ruth Lea, head of policy at Britain's Institute of Directors. "They do it because that is how they wish to live their lives."
But the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which studies social issues, found that 1 father in 4 works more than 50 hours a week. This has "a bad effect on many families," the group concludes, and leaves many wives "discontented or depressed."
Powerful trade unions agree. Unison, the biggest public-sector union, says it will take the government to court unless it applies the EU's working-time directive.
But Prime Minister John Major argues many families will find themselves badly off if the EU directive is applied in Britain. This, he says, is because "it will mean many jobs having to be destroyed as employers come under financial pressure to meet the new rules."
But for Mr. Major, the issue is also one of British independence. The court's ruling has the force of law. But Major has promised to fight it by changing European treaties spelling out workers' rights.
Britain's position is made more awkward by the fact that the EU Council of Ministers accepts majority voting on health and safety issues. This means London cannot use a veto on a 48-hour week, but must fight for changes in European law.
Major said Nov. 11 he would insist upon changes in relevant European laws before concluding any new agreements on European economic and political unity.
This appeared to mean that London was prepared to block negotiations on such matters as a single European currency until its demands were met.
When Britain signed the 1991 Maastricht Treaty, which committed EU members to deeper unity, it negotiated an opt-out from a EU "Social Chapter" codifying the rights of workers. But the European Commission changed tack and argues it has a right to require a 48-hour week in Britain on health and safety grounds.