Scaled-down public services proposal under fire
The Commission's decision to scale down its ambitions for public service regulation has been met with contempt by trade unions, public employers, NGOs and the Socialist Group in the European Parliament.
The Communication defines SGI as "the services, both economic and non-economic, which the public authorities classify as being of general interest and subject to specific public service obligations".
The publication of a Communication in lieu of binding legislation means, however, that there will not be an EU-wide binding definition of SGI. This also means that it will be left to member states' discretion whether they can privatise services ranging from fundamental healthcare to water supply. Moreover, a number of crucial questions with respect to state aid and tendering procedures will remain unanswered.
The paper goes on to state that "these services are essential for the daily life of citizens and enterprises, and reflect Europe's model of society". It adds that "they play a major role in ensuring social, economic and territorial cohesion throughout the Union and are vital for the sustainable development of the EU in terms of higher levels of employment, social inclusion and economic growth".
The Commission finds that "scope and organisation" of SGI "vary significantly according to histories and cultures of state intervention" across the member states. It therefore opts for a sectoral approach, where existing or pending EU legislation is to be reviewed to ensure that EU internal market rules clash neither with the provision of SGI in one member state nor with privatisation plans in another.
Following the exclusion of social services from the Services Directive, Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimír Špidla and an alliance comprising trade unions, public service providers and the Socialists in the European Parliament have been pushing hard for specific EU legislation pertaining to Services of General Interest.
The groups, who have joined forces in an informal alliance, the 'public service campaign group', claim that at a time of increased liberalisation of public services, legal initiatives are imperative to ensuring their quality and universal availability.
On several occasions, the Commission signalled that it was preparing a Framework Directive on SGI to deal with those issues. Instead, the Commission adopted, on 20 November 2007, a non-binding Communication on SGI. Addressing journalists in Brussels, Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that the College of Commissioners no longer found it "useful" to publish a Framework Directive.
ETUC, the European Trade Union Confederation, spearheaded a campaign in favour of "High-quality public services, accessible to all" and collected more than half a million signatures urging the European Commission "to bring forward European legislation" on the matter.
John Monks, general secretary of ETUC, did not hide his disappointment over the Commission proposal: "Our conclusion today is disappointment that the Commission has missed an opportunity to ensure that public services are sufficiently respected. The EU Reform Treaty, if ratified, could well help us achieve the same objectives. Nonetheless, a more detailed Framework Directive would have clarified the necessarily general intentions of the EU Reform Treaty and the Commission should have seized the moment, and not ducked it."
The European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) stated that "the Commission does not adequately acknowledge that an explicit provision for the adoption of horizontal legislation ensuring the mission of public services in Europe has been included in the new Treaties of the European Union". EPSU General Secretary Carola Fischbach-Pyttel added that "it is now beyond question that there is a sound legal basis for public services in the new European Treaty, despite what the Commission would like to think".
CEEP, the employers' organisation for public service providers, declared that the Commission's draft "is by no means able to provide the additional legal security that has been requested by most stakeholders", adding that "there has not been any progress since the White Paper on Services of General Interest in 2004".
CEEP Secretary General Rainer Plassmann said: "Europe is not only a market. Consumers are also citizens, and their welfare depends to a high extent on standards and guarantees that cannot be automatically delivered by the markets. In political terms, this means that the EU has to tackle these issues in a comprehensive approach that goes beyond the principles of Internal Market policy."
Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, said: "The statements of President Barroso today are a provocation. Legal uncertainties about our public services need to be cleared up. We have been calling for action for the last six years, as have EU ministers. We did so in response to concerns of public service providers, users and regulators across Europe."
The Social Platform of NGOs declared: "The Commission has failed to bring forward concrete proposals aiming at reinforcing SGI users' rights. Charters, such as the planned 'European Charter on the Rights of Energy Users', can play an important role. However, the implementation of users' rights shall not depend on the goodwill of operators. Charters must create enforceable rights and provide real safeguards for users, with proper resources and sanction mechanisms."
SME organisation UEAPME was more positive about the Commission proposal, saying that it "puts an end to a sterile ideological battle by rejecting calls for a new horizontal legislative framework and rightly insisting instead on the essential need to increase awareness of the existing legal instruments and develop sector-specific" initiatives.