London (CNSNews.com) - The European Union has passed legislation aimed at combating racism in the workplace, marking the first time EU member states will have social policy dictated by Brussels.
Critics call it a further step toward deeper European integration and further erosion of national sovereignty.
The new law has been criticized for reversing the burden of proof in cases where an employee claims discrimination on ethnic grounds.
Firms accused of discriminating against staff members on the basis of race will have to prove their innocence in civil court cases.
Third party organizations and lobby groups will also have the right to file racial discrimination lawsuits on behalf of claimants.
Britain's Labor government failed to exercise its right to veto the EU's first anti-racism law, even though just two weeks ago it described it as "unacceptable."
The opposition Conservative Party Wednesday echoed warnings from business leaders that the legislation could have a negative impact on British business.
The party's spokesman on foreign affairs, Francis Maude, called the law "counter-productive and potentially very damaging for British business."
"This is more evidence that Labor says one thing in Britain and another in Brussels," he charged. Maude has in the past expressed his full support for any steps aimed at curbing racial hatred, but called the new law "muddle-headed."
Employers groups have complained that the code will compel employers to prove their innocence in court, upending a fundamental safeguard in British law.
A British Labor member of the European Parliament involved in pushing through the legislation, Richard Howitt, said the government backed the move because British business leaders had agreed it would not affect their competitiveness.
But just last month, an Institute of Directors representative was quoted as saying the law was "very dangerous because it means that employers will be guilty until proved innocent."
And the president of the Confederation of British Industry, Sir Clive Thompson, said employment laws imposed by London and Brussels, where the EU headquarters are located, were threatening jobs in the UK.
Even a government minister voiced concerns in May. Keith Vaz, the junior foreign minister with responsibility for Europe, said the draft law should be amended to protect the rights of the accused in cases of racial discrimination.
EU's first anti-race measure
Now that social affairs ministers have approved the new code, it will be included in the body of EU law.
A year ago the EU signed a treaty in Amsterdam giving it the power to introduce laws to curb racial discrimination. The law approved this week is the first to be brought in under that agreement.
The EU's executive branch, the European Commission, was authorized to act "to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation."
The Amsterdam Treaty constituted a dramatic shift away from the EC's primarily economic policy role, now broadened to include social policy among member states.
Apart from employment, the new law also covers alleged discrimination in the areas of education, social security, healthcare and access to goods, including housing.
Member-states' governments will be expected to define discrimination, monitor incidents, give victims the means of redress, and designate an organization to provide help for those wanted to make complaints.
EU members will have three years to implement the requirements.
Anna Diamantopoulou, holder of the social affairs portfolio in the EC, welcomed the decision.
"The directive will strengthen protection against racial discrimination across the Community and shows that we can make a practical and positive difference to the everyday lives of our people," she said in a statement.
One of the reasons the legislation was rushed through the EU's usual hamstrung bureaucracy at near record pace was the dispute earlier this year over the entry by a controversial far-right party into the Austrian government.
Austria is still subject to sanctions from the 14 other EU governments over the Freedom Party's participation in the ruling coalition. Some states want to lift the sanctions, although it remains unclear whether Austria's approval of the new law will speed up that process.