Social Services of General Interest (ETUC response to the Commission's communication)

Brussels, 18-19 October 2006

1. On 26 April 2006, the Commission published its communication “Implementing the Community Lisbon programme: Social services of general interest in the European Union” (COM (2006) 177 final). The communication is a follow-up to the White Paper on Services of General Interest (COM (2004) 374) of 12 May 2004 and the survey that followed.

2. In its response, ETUC is not planning to include all the argumentation set out in the Communication but instead wants to highlight and comment on the points it considers to be the most important for attaining the objective of social cohesion that must be boosted at both national and European level, and in which Social services of general interest (SSGIs) play an important role. It also would like to point out the flaws of this Communication and to give some direction for future discussions.

Social services that guarantee fundamental rights

3. The ETUC is a keen supporter of the development of high-quality SSGIs because they effectively provide access to the fundamental rights - and the exercise of these rights - contained in the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights. They contribute, therefore, to the construction and development of the European social model.

4. The ETUC firmly believes that the specific nature of and the objectives pursued by SSGIs cannot be made subject to the laws of the internal market. The majority of these services, which meet social objectives and implement solidarity mechanisms, cannot be classified as economic activities under the terms of the Treaty, i.e. they cannot be made subject to competition regulations. If this was the case, conflicts could arise between the social objectives pursued by these services and competition law and which could, in turn, lead to undesirable developments or even drifts.

5. This is why ETUC also believes that, even if some social services were classified as 'economic activities' under the terms of the Treaty, general interest and social objectives must prevail over market principles. The market cannot solve social problems or meet general social needs itself, since it is precisely its weaknesses that have been observed which have forced the public authorities to react in a bid to safeguard fundamental rights for society as a whole and to meet societal needs, particularly those of the must vulnerable people or those on the fringes of society. SSGIs actually meet the collective and individual societal needs for which the public authorities need to act as providers or regulators in order to guarantee and increase the access to the services and ensure certain quality standards across the territory of the Member State concerned. This happens because, as mentioned above, the Member States must ensure that the fundamental social rights contained in the Charter are implemented. It should also be noted that a large majority of these services are provided by solidarity organisations set up in extremely different ways and which often operate on a non-profit basis.

6. The ETUC therefore wants to see adequate measures taken to allow social services to develop and pursue their objectives to work for the good of society above all:
- because they meet mainly individual and societal needs;
- because they establish a 'social link' via the services they develop and the activities they organise, thereby contributing to social cohesion, also at the territorial level;
- and also and above all because they use solidarity-based mechanisms to perform a mission of general interest.

The first step

7. The ETUC, therefore, takes note of the Commission's initiative which represents progress towards recognition of this type of service, something that ETUC demanded a long time ago. However, it is discontented that the Communication did not pay much attention to the general interest elements of these services and how they could be guaranteed. A communication on SSGI should highlight the responsibilities of the public authorities at national and local level and also indicate how the rights of citizens and workers could be safeguarded.

8. In fact, these services fall within the scope of the Lisbon Strategy since they are important sources of jobs, but some of the services could also be regarded as economic activities which means that without further protective Community legislation and a genuine well-defined policy at European level, the internal market regulations, above all as regards the free market and rules on free competition would be applied swayed by litigation.

9. The ETUC thinks that whilst there seems to be a large consensus on the acknowledgement of the specific nature of social and health services, different opinions also exist as regards taking them into account at European level. Both the proposals for state aid rules (Altmark package) and the Green Paper on public-private partnerships are likely to have a significant impact on the definition and the implementation of social services, thereby running the risk that the economic dimension of the activity becomes a determining factor in this service. Hence the need, at European level, to acknowledge this type of services and to anchor the application of the principles of general interest to these services in Community regulations.

Urgent need to anchor social services of general interest in a general framework

10. Whilst the ETUC considers it necessary to acknowledge the specific position of SSGI in the EU, and welcomes the fact that the EC has recognized this in its Communication it thinks that it does not go far enough since the Commission's communication does not acknowledge the importance of the principles of general interest and sticks to the market approach. The EC therefore does not provide the answer to the question, how the principles of general interest relate to the market legislation and how the general interest can be guaranteed. An answer which has been demanded by the ETUC, in particular.

11. ETUC wants to see greater attention accorded to the principle of subsidiarity. The majority of SSGIs do not have an obvious European dimension and do not distort trade between Member States. They are founded and organised on the principle of solidarity and are often provided by non-profit organisations. The public authorities should therefore be accorded a more prominent and secure role, particularly as regards the fact that they are not subject to competition regulations.
However, applying the principle of subsidiarity alone is not sufficient for an ever growing range of SSGIs and ETUC will not accept this argument as an excuse for failing to make progress to guarantee better protection of these services. Guaranteeing, or even creating, the conditions required to allow the public service mission of some of these services to be fulfilled is a responsibility that is shared between the Member States and the European Union. It is important, therefore, to find suitable European regulations to ensure that the general interest and values such as solidarity and social cohesion take precedence over market laws and thereby contribute to a high level of employment and a social Europe.

12. Moreover, although the ETUC hails the resolve to place the monitoring and dialogue procedure within the framework of the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) whilst stressing the need to consult the social partners at all relevant levels, it is clear to the ETUC that using the OMC alone is not enough since the Member States and the providers of social services of general interest need legal certainty and legal protection if they are to provide high-quality services. In addition, it seems paradoxical to want to set up a new OMC process at a time when the Council has decided to rationalise the three existing processes.

13. ETUC reiterates its previous demands and calls on the Commission to first draft a framework directive on services of general interest (SGIs). Then, once this framework directive has been adopted and the consultation process launched by the Commission's communication has been concluded, an opportunity to adopt one or several Community instruments could be envisaged at a future stage, which would allow SSGIs to be legally anchored and to develop and pursue their objectives to benefit European citizens and society. This framework could be used to define common standards for SSGIs as regards their specific nature, missions, objectives and quality.

Major improvements and greater ambition required

14. The ETUC welcomes the fact that, following its input and the mobilisation of its members, some social services and all health care services have been excluded from the scope of the Services Directive. These services cannot be regarded or reduced to mere everyday commodities but require the definition and implementation of public policies which are based on solidarity, including those on prevention, both at national and European levels.

15. However, the ETUC denounces the distinction that the Commission has introduced between social services and health care services. Admittedly, the costs and financial commitments required by these two services differ greatly, but the ETUC does not think that the financial argument justifies this arbitrary distinction which is likely to give rise to further problems. The ETUC is therefore opposed to the creation of separate sectoral strategies.

16. Similarly, ETUC feels that the way in which certain SSGIs were excluded from the scope of the directive on services in the internal market was incorrect and insufficient. The process did not include a prior in-depth analysis of the nature of and objectives pursued by these services, a flaw that could cause problems.

17. In addition and above all, the ETUC thinks that the approach adopted by the Commission in its communication as regards SSGIs is far too restrictive. In fact, social services do not just help those people on the fringes of society or its poor members, although particular attention should be paid to the fact that these services must be of a high-quality, must be accessible to these groups and must meet their needs. Social services also aim to meet the needs and expectations of all individuals. In the ETUC's opinion, experience shows that trying to give priority to policies 'for the poor' often results in the implementation of 'poor policies'.

18. Finally, the ETUC thinks that there are some inconsistencies in the Commission's document which acknowledges the legal uncertainty that persists for social services on the one hand but does not actually put forward any measures to properly remedy the situation and to ensure that principles like solidarity, accessibility, availability and quality can be guaranteed.

19. The ETUC therefore invites the European Commission to demonstrate greater boldness and ambition, in other words to finish what it has started. The ETUC will therefore continue to take active steps in this direction. The same applies to the credibility of the desire to construct not simply an economic Europe but also a social one. In other words, a Europe that sets great store by social cohesion and is based on solidarity, a Europe that can rise to the expectations of European workers and to the aspirations of European citizens.