The Impact of the EC Communication on SSGI
13th of March 2008, London
1 - We must recognize how important was the Commissioner Vladimir Spidla's Communication, in April 2006, about Social Services of General Interest. On the other hand, the last communication of Barroso in Strasbourg, last November, deceived most people all over Europe, in the Parliament and in the social organizations. It was a communication on internal market with a communication in annex about services of general interest, integrating a few points on Social Services of General Interest. It was not enough for the need of clarification.
The whole process, however, relates to secure the continued exclusion of social services from the Services Directive – along with health services. Certainly there is already clear provision for exclusion, particularly of social housing, but the text leaves scope for extending it to virtually all social services provided to people in need.
As a response to the Communication on SSGI and in view of further influencing the policy process at European level, in spring 2007 not only the EP, but also the EESC and the CoR presented their reports and opinions on SSGI.
2 - Throughout the whole process, and particularly during preparation for the Portuguese Presidency, Portugal has supported clarification and development of the arrangements for social services of general interest. Such was the background to the organisation of the first Forum on Social Services of General Interest, on the basis of a European Parliament resolution contained in my report approved by a clear majority. Then, on the 17th of September 2007, the 1st Forum on Social Services of General Interest was organised in Lisbon under the auspices of the European Parliament with support of the Portuguese Presidency of the EU and the European Commission. We had a strong participation from social organisations from 28 States across Europe, representatives of Public Administration for the social fields and very qualified legal experts.
The Forum aimed at advancing the ongoing debate about the structural changes in the field of SSGI particularly in view of the appropriate legal and political framework for their organisation, regulation, provision and financing at European and national level to promote and safeguard their quality and efficiency. Particular attention was paid to the broadly acknowledged specific characteristics of SSGI and how these should best be recognised and reflected in Community policies and law. Also, it was deeply discussed the problems concerning the training and the evaluation of these services.
I also believe that the discussions in the Parliament and the Lisbon Forum were very significant for the process of continuing to strengthen and clarify the role of social services of general interest – services whose provision is so important in terms of translating the European social model into reality. I would like also to highlight the important contributions made by the reports on SSGIs from the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee.
3 - In the Lisbon Forum on SSGI it was discussed several different issues, namely:
a) The possible legal instruments to be set up. For instance, the Professor Jorens, from Ghent University, in Belgium, was in favour of implementing a "step by step" approach at the institutional level, starting with the interpretative communication of the European Commission, working towards an inter-institutional agreement, focusing on the review of Altmark Package and to settling a framework directive or regulation.
Free competition and free movement may not compromise other objectives, but there is still a need for a commonly accepted concept of SSGI, to avoid ambiguous notions of economic activity, market, and service. In this perspective, we should take into consideration the spirit and substance of articles 16 and 86 §2 of the European Community Treaty and of the article 14 of the Lisbon Treaty. According to these texts, it can be the best way for providing and financing SSGI's, at the same time. The article 86 §2 is until now the core of European legal system and base for improved legal status of general interest mission intrinsic to social services.
b) Regarding the general strategy: Whereas some favoured a stepwise approach, most speakers clearly called for specific instrument (sectoral directive or a framework directive). Proposals on possible contents of a sectoral directive (as developed e.g. by the collectif SSIG-FR) were reiterated in Lisbon. Be it through a framework directive or sectoral directive(s), with the setting of sector- and measure-specific standards at national level.
c) Several speakers called on the importance of taking into account the Protocol on SGI referred to in the Lisbon Treaty. Some speakers advocated for the development of minimum standards across the EU27 also in the field of SSGI. For them focusing on minimum standards could not least favour a run to the bottom.
d) A shared message consisted in the statement that it is indispensable to continue the dialogue with Member States, the providers and the users of SSGI and to deepen the mutual understanding. The Forum underlined a commitment – broadly shared amongst participants – to move forward on the issue of SSGI in the framework of participatory processes.
e) The relations with the local and regional authorities and the need to get a mandate were also discussed. The speakers were commonly in favour of applying the subsidiarity principle, in the Member-states, the Landers and the regions, all over Europe.
f) The need of evaluation of the quality of the services provided was a concern of most speakers as well as the quality of training of the workers in this field.
4 - As I referred in my report (paragraph 14), the EP considers, that the Member States’ various competent public authorities are free to decide whether SSGIs should be provided by mutual associations, other forms of social organisation or private businesses, in cases where the provision of services by the private sector is compatible with the principle of upholding the general interest, but considers that public authorities should be able to check at any time that the service providers are abiding by the principles and values associated with SSGIs and whether services are being provided in accordance with the requirements specified in advance by the public authorities.
5 - The 1st Forum on SSGI supported the important task of stocktaking in the field of SSGI and offered an additional platform to present and debate options for further legal and political action at Community level and advance the search for solutions for concrete problems. Insofar the idea of organising a 2nd Forum on SSGI under the auspices of the European Parliament, as mentioned by several speakers and participants like Mr. Jerôme Vignon, from DG Employment, could be envisaged.
6 - On the other hand, I think that the Treaty of Lisbon has opened the way to a more deep understanding of the importance of social matters in the European Constitution. The importance of the Protocol about SGI, the article 14º of the Treaty and the references about social affairs in the Chart of Fundamental Rights opened clearly a new way for promoting the social services of general interest and the SGI in general. This opinion was reinforced during the Sorbonne debate on SSGI, on the 19th of February of 2008.
The protocol stresses the importance of services of general interest and the rights of public authorities to decide how to provide them.
7 - In my opinion, the Commission was wrong to argue that the debate on the need to ensure greater protection of public services was over. It is an illusion to want to conclude a debate that is not finished. The Commission’s decision to publish the paper at the same time as a planned review of the single market review was important to show the links between competition and internal market rules and services of general interest. It could be a step, but it’s not enough.
8 - It is clear that the European Commission has not been able to explore the opportunities opened in the social field by the New Treaty of Lisbon. In the Lisbon Forum, and other meetings, it was clear the need for a legal clarification. It was also the position supported by the Portuguese Presidency and the Commissioner Spidla in Lisbon.
9 - The debate is going on, even if Barroso thinks that it had been closed with the text on SSGI and SGI annexed to the Communication about internal market. For instance, in January I spoke about this subject to the Austrian Chamber of Labour, for the representatives of 3 million and 3 hundred thousand members. Last February, the 19th, I've mention the same problem during my speeches at the Sorbonne University, and also in Paris, during a Press Conference with my French colleague Bernhard Lehideux, the European coordinator of the Platform for Social Housing and the general secretary of the Mutualities of France.
10 - The debate is still open, as we see here today. We need to go on, respecting the subsidiarity principle, trying to get a Directive on SSGI, progressing in the definition of the criteria for quality of evaluation and reinforcing the links between SSGI and the local and regional authorities all over Europe, without relegating the criteria of the internal market.