The Commission does not see any need to make major changes to EU rules on the provision and financing of social services in the member states, it emerged last week.
This is despite pressure from left-wing politicians and social NGOs, who claim that the current rules can lead to significant problems for public authorities and service providers.
László Andor, the EU commissioner responsible for employment and social affairs, addressed the issue at a Forum on Social Services of General Interest, which took place in Brussels last week (26-27 October).
While he was ready to admit that "some adjustments might be useful," Andor said there was no need for radical change. "The existing rules offer much more room for manoeuvre in the social sector than people often think," he said.
Rather than developing a new legal framework, the Commission believes it is better to focus on making sure that existing rules are implemented properly and fairly by national authorities.
"As part of promoting good quality social services we are committed to helping public authorities in the member states to better understand and apply the existing EU rules," said Andor. "These rules can help public authorities to organise high-quality, cost-effective social services – if they are applied in an appropriate manner."
With this aim in mind, the Commission has prepared a guide on how EU rules should be followed in the field of social services. Andor hopes that the guide, which has yet to be translated and published, will "address the uncertainties expressed by the public authorities, the service providers and the stakeholders".
Commissioner Andor was careful not to rule out the possibility of changes to EU rules in the future. He pointed out that the Commission has just finalised a public consultation on state aid and will soon launch a consultation on public procurement rules.
Andor also announced that the Commission intends to adopt in 2011 a communication and a series of measures on Services of General Interest. Some of these measures may also be of relevance to social services.
Service providers calling for change
The 3rd Forum on Social Services of General Interest, organised in Brussels by the Belgian Presidency of the EU, was attended by some 300 delegates, mostly representing organisations that are responsible for delivering social services in the member states.
Many of them said they would like to see more attention given to guaranteeing the high quality of social services. An alliance of eight associations has asked the Commission to examine whether social services could be exempted from public procurement rules.
Social service providers have found an ally in Belgian Social Affairs Minister Laurette Onkelinx. Speaking at the closing session of the Forum in Brussels, she referred to "the distance that exists between European rules and the social needs of actors on the ground".
According to Onkelinx, local public authorities and service providers do not always have the knowledge or resources necessary for them to properly deal with European rules on issues such as competition, public procurement and state subsidies.
The minister also complained about the administrative difficulties faced by local authorities when they try to make use of EU funds. She mentioned the example of a Brussels district which had attempted to access European money in order to co-finance specific actions to address major social problems.
Onkelinx: Economic logic 'does not fit with social reality'
"Many small operators believe that the European authorities are not interested in them," insisted Onkelinx. "This shows that the economic logic does not fit with the reality of social services."
Onkelinx welcomes the steps being taken by the Commission to provide more information and support to public authorities in order to help them understand and work with EU rules. But she also wants these rules to be adapted in ways that take into account the specific characteristics and fundamental importance of social services.
The Belgian vice-prime minister is asking the Commission to come forward with concrete proposals for legislative initiatives that would help to bring about a more certain legal framework for social services.
Onkelinx is also calling on the Commission to fully implement the new provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, and especially the so-called "horizontal social clause," which states that the EU should take a range of social objectives into account during the definition and implementation of all its policies and activities (Article 9; TFEU).
A quality framework for social services
The Forum also discussed the issue of how to ensure the highest possible quality of social services throughout the EU. Delegates discussed a European quality framework for social services, which has recently been prepared by the Social Protection Committee, which brings together national experts from all 27 member states.
The European quality framework is voluntary, and would not be legally binding on the member states. National government ministers responsible for employment and social affairs are expected to approve the framework at the next meeting of employment ministers on 6 December.
The Commission has promised to promote the application of the framework by supporting transnational projects and exchanges of good practice.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament is getting ready to debate the future of social services. The Parliament's employment and social affairs committee has appointed Irish MEP Proinsias De Rossa (Socialists & Democrats) to draft a report on this issue, and has also invited four other committees to provide their input into the discussion.
A series of recommendations will be drawn up and debated by MEPs during the first half of 2011.