Commission lays out social services scheme

In a Communication on Social Services of General Interest (SSGI), the Commission has defined what it understands by the term and outlined its position. The paper does not deal with health services, nor does it contain any policy initiatives.

SSGI make up an already important and – due to the ageing population – growing part of European economy. Their financing is one of the biggest challenges EU countries are facing, and it is the major obstacle to realising the sector’s gigantic potential for growth. As a result of demographic developments already clearly visible in projections, it is unlikely that this growth potential will ever be realised. The risk is rather that per capita investment in SSGI will decrease, with major consequences for the way western societies are structured and consequently also for European lifestyle as we know it. 

Under the treaties, SSGI are subject to provisions dealing with general interest, which stipulate that Internal Market rules, for example on competition, may not impede activities in the interest of the community as such. 

 Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimir Spidla said great care must be taken because SSGI are in the area of conflict between Internal Market rules and general interest, which led to "potential tensions". He dismissed criticism of the the Commission's approach of coming forward only with a relatively unambitious communication without any commitments to policy initiatives.  He said that specific steps were to be taken one by one, each at its time. "Today," he said, "we have made what may not be a very big step forward, but what is definitely a significant one".

The European Trade Union Confederation picked up Spidla's wording and said the Communication as a "first step is necessary, [but] still inadequate." ETUC added: "The Commission must go further with its proposals in this regard, in order to establish greater legal certainty, through a framework directive on services of general interest (SGI), which should also make it possible to take account of the specific character of social services. [...] ETUC holds the view that it is necessary to expand the definition of these services, excluded from the scope of the directive on services in the internal market. The Commission has adopted an approach that is too restrictive."

Along similar lines, the Social Platform, which brings together social NGOs from all over Europe, said the Commission "should have taken bolder steps towards advancing legal instruments in a context of urgent modernisation of social services in Member States". Social Platform President Anne-Sophie Parent said: "We are delighted that the Commission and the Parliament have supported our argument that the draft Services Directive would not guarantee the future of social services. But we have also argued that another way must be found to provide certainty, and this Communication is an important first step to finding a solution. However, there is an urgent need for action to avoid social services being left in a legal limbo."

For the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and o Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP), Secretary General Rainer Plassmann urged the Commission to include health services into the scope of the SSGI. "Immediate priority should be given to removing legal uncertainties that still burden public authorities and stakeholders dealing with social and health care services: for instance on the mandating conditions, the definition of specific missions, the granting of exclusive and special rights necessary for the good fulfilment of those missions, and the definition of the authorisation regimes."

The European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) criticised the proposed time frame for the Commission to assess the impact of Community rules on social services and to define the need for more policy steps over the next 18 months as being "impractical". EPSU added that "while the research is being carried out, the European Court of Justice will by default, continue to extend internal market obligations into the social services sector". EPSU General Secretary Carola Fischbach-Pyttel stated that; "this Communication makes assumptions that social services modernisation by definition means increased private sector participation, and yet there is no statistical evidence to prove this" She added that "this Communication makes assumptions that social services need to be part of the internal market rather than a vital counterbalance to the internal market". 

SSGI refer to social security schemes, be they statutory or complementary, covering risks such as ageing, retirement and disability, accidents at work or unemployment. In principle, health services are also part of SSGI, but since the Commission has decided to cover them in a separate policy initiative, they are not part of this Communication, which was published on 26 April 2006. 

SSGI also include a number of other services directly delivered to persons and playing a preventive or social cohesion role, such as preventing of or dealing with the consequences of poverty, debt and unemployment, of drug addiction and private life tragedies. Occupational training, language training for immigrants and social housing, for instance, are all social services of general interest. 

Commissioner Spidla announced that the Commission will start publishing, bi-annually, reports on modernisation trends, case law and developments in the sector. The first such report will be published at the end of 2007. It will also examine the question whether EU regulation of the sector is necessary. The report will be preceded by a consultation. 

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