Brussels, 06-07 June 2006
Services of general interest (SGI) are acknowledged as one of the pillars of the European social model. Developing a balanced European Union is based, in particular, on high-quality services of general interest which contribute to regional and social cohesion within the framework of a social market economy.
The ETUC has asked on several occasions for the European Commission and the Member States to pursue a proactive strategy of negotiated modernisation of these services that aims to enhance them and help them to evolve and that is based on general principles such as equal access, high-quality service, fair prices, universality, high-quality work and jobs, security and social justice.
Ensuring and indeed creating conditions which will enable them to carry out general interest missions is the shared responsibility of national and European authorities.
Moreover, societal changes and the policies chosen to tackle the many challenges we face today often result in tasks, which were previously carried out by the public sector, being outsourced. This leads to heightened competition between the various operators involved (with States playing the role of regulators). The operators increasingly become subject to European market rules which in turn reduces their room for manoeuvre.
In the absence of clearer and more detailed rules from political players, the case law of the European Court of Justice comes into play in this field in order to resolve conflicts between the commitments associated with public missions and the freedoms enjoyed within the single market. This situation cannot be maintained for two reasons at the very least. Case law is subject to change and is applied to individual cases and as a result, legal uncertainty persists.
This is why it is even more important for the Commission to adopt a coherent approach in its various initiatives in this field; this is not necessarily the case, not least due to the priority given to opening up markets, which includes the draft directive on services within the single market.
Thanks to efforts on the part of trade unions, the European Parliament made substantial amendments to this draft directive. The European Commission then presented an amended draft on 4 April 2006. As such, significant - but still insufficient - progress has been made. Indeed, although SGIs have been omitted from the directive entirely, some services of general economic interest (SGEIs) are included and the list of excluded social services of general interest (SSGIs) is restricted to four fields (healthcare, social housing, childcare and assistance for families and individuals in need), which appears too restrictive.
Today, following this welcome decision by the European Parliament to recognise the specific status of services of general (economic) interest, the debate on the future of SGIs has been re-kindled. The European Parliament itself is in the process of drafting its opinion on the follow-up required to the White Paper on services of general interest, while the European Commission is awaiting the outcome of these discussions before presenting its own communication on the issue. It has already published its Communication on Social Services of General Interest. It has also promised to prepare another communication on healthcare before the end of the year.
The ETUC notes these initiatives which, without doubt, mark a new step towards recognising this type of service and the need for clarification of the conditions governing the application of certain Community rules in these areas, something which the ETUC has long been calling for. It would appear necessary, therefore, for the ETUC to take an active stance on this matter - a matter which is so important for public services, the workers employed in them, users and citizens - rather than waiting to react the Commission's proposals.
The European Commission is launching sectoral (Communication on Social Services of General Interest) and horizontal (e.g. on public-private partnerships) initiatives without defining a general framework within which to anchor services of general interest. In the ETUC's view, the process initiated by the Green Paper and continued in the White Paper should culminate in an instrument being adopted which will bind together all the Community's regulatory provisions to enable services of general interest to develop and pursue their goals for the benefit of society as a whole.
While acknowledging the principle of subsidiarity and the responsibilities of the Member States with regard to organising and financing services of general (economic) interest, the ETUC remains convinced that a Community legal instrument - in other words a framework directive - is required.
The ETUC and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) had already adopted the Joint Charter on Services of General Interest as early as 2000. Today, in an altered political context, a consensus has been reached on a draft joint text for a framework agreement on services of general economic interest. This framework directive will shore up the foundations of services of general interest, will enhance the responsibilities of the public authorities at national and local level and will safeguard the rights of workers and citizens alike.
Main points of the draft text by the ETUC and CEEP
- Services of general interest are to be cited in the same context as services of general economic interest despite the fact that only the latter term formally exists in Community legislation. The key objectives of these services and the values of the European Union - in particular, sustainable economic development and social cohesion - must be enshrined in the text.
- General interest should take precedence over market laws: this means contributing to sustainable development and to a high level of employment.
- The fundamental principles should be reiterated and applied, as should the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
- The principle of subsidiarity and the responsibilities of the public authorities at all levels (both national and local) should be reiterated and should determine how these services will be provided, regardless of the status (specifically public) of the party providing those services.
- The directive should ensure legal certainty which will pave the way for funding of services of general economic interest in the long term and investment vital to the continuity and quality of these services.
- Good governance and social dialogue are to be the primary guiding factors.
- Users, trade unions and consumers are to be consulted and are to be stakeholders in methods of regulation.
- Involvement and consultation of workers and their representatives within the context of social dialogue at every level should be affirmed.
- An assessment shall be conducted at all levels and workers and their representatives shall be involved in this process.
- An evaluation report shall be compiled.
The ETUC undertakes to make this initiative a priority and as such will continue to take active steps in this direction.
This joint position will enable both parties to be strengthened and to act in partnership to plan promotional action and to secure allies, in particular the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions.
The ETUC therefore invites the European Commission to demonstrate greater boldness and ambition, in other words to follow through with its plans set out in the White Paper on Services of General Interest. 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.