Social service providers call for protective regulation under EU Treaty

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At a conference in Brussels on 28 January, French providers of Social Services of General Interest (SSGI) have called for clarity over the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions concerning the sector, particularly regarding regulatory limits to opening up social services to competition. 

The Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions, together with an alliance of 15 French federations of social service providers released a report on the state of affairs regarding SSGIs in the light of the Lisbon Reform Treaty. 

Looking ahead to the March 2008 Spring Summit, the report calls for a relaunch of a European strategy for social services of general interest, namely by: 

  • Defining a European strategy for social services of general interest; 
  • Clarifying the European framework applicable to social services of general interest, notably regarding member states’ “exclusive and special rights” regarding public regualtion of social services which fall outside the Services Directive, and; 
  • Identifying areas of tension between conflicting aims of the Treaty “based on the principle that missions of general interest take precedence over the Treaty rules.” 

Also at stake, states the report, is the “credibility of the process begun four years ago” and the “new commitment on SGIs formulated by the Council in the terms of the new Protocol on services of general interest and Article 14 of the Reform Treaty.”

Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimír Špidla argues in favour of a "gradual approach" to social services regulation at EU level. Speaking in September 2007, he said debate was a "necessary phase before we can envisage adopting any specific legal instrument for social services. Personally, I am convinced that we shall adopt such an instrument sooner or later."

Collectif-SSIG aruges that the obligation to mandate third-party providers of social services will lead several challenges for them. In particular, it argues that the concept of delegation of powers should be clarified in Community law, especially with respect to the legal obligation to provide service.   

The organisations demand a "follow-up in the form of a handbook on the principle of supremacy of Services of General Interest (SGI) over the rules of competition and the internal market as defined by Article 86 § 2 of the Treaty". They say that the manual "should be passed under the next European Parliament and Commission term by way of an ordinary legislative process" as "the outcome of a genuine democratic debate and no longer exclusively ad hoc decisions from the European Commission."

They stress that "the right of access to services of general interest [...] has been enshrined as a fundamental human right in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights" and now has "the same legal force as the provisions of the Treaties".

Following the exclusion of social services from the Services Directive, the Commission also decided, in December 2007, to scale down its ambitions for public service regulation and refrain from publishing a Directive on Services of General Interest (SGI). The move was met with contempt by trade unions, public employers, NGOs and the Socialist Group in the European Parliament (see EURACTIV 21/11/07).

According to the Lisbon Treaty, the provisions of the Treaties do not affect the ability of member states to provide, commission and organise non-economic services of general interest in any way.

Protocol 9 of the Lisbon Reform Treaty stipulates the "shared values of the Union in respect of services of general economic interest", including in particular:

  • The essential role and wide discretion of national, regional and local authorities in providing, commissioning and organising services of general economic interest as closely as possible to the needs of the users;
  • Diversity between various services of general economic interest and differences in the needs and preferences of users that may result from different geographical, social or cultural situations, and;
  • A high level of quality, safety and affordability, as well as equal treatment and the promotion of universal access and user rights.
  • By Dec. 2008: Member states to send to the Commission's Competition DG reports on the application of the Commission decision on the compatibility of state aid in the form of public service compensation, which also includes an obligation to delegate those tasks to third-party providers.

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