Social Services of General Interest : Sector Demands Clearer and More Suitable Regulation

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The Communication on Social Services of General Interest which the European Commission is expected to adopt on 26 April is long overdue, despite being waited for patiently by all involved in the sector. This was the verdict of a conference organised on the subjectaby the Austrian Presidency of the EU in Vienna on 20 April. It was clear that all stakeholders (local and national authorities such as housing authorities and NGOs), regardless of nationality or opinion, were united by one common bond: "we need to put a stop to these changing laws, we need to establish a more robust legal base - founded on clear and consistent rules".

For many years now, experts have been divided over the issue of social services. And although there is still no unanimous verdict, it would appear that agreement has finally been reached on what constitutes social services. As explained by Marianne Dony from the Universite Libre de Bruxelles', "the definition of services of general interest (continuity, universality, equality, etc.) cannot be fully applied to social services. There are additional criteria, for example, the required solidarity with and recognition of public powers".

This view is partly shared by Laurent Ghekiere, Vice-President of the Enterprise, Internal Market and Competition Committee of the European Committee of Public Employers (CEEP) and representative of the Union sociale de l'habitat. "Companies cannot just decide for themselves that they offer services of general interest, they first have to qualify and we need a legal base to define a particular mission". This question is highly sensitive as it goes to the heart of state prerogatives, as pointed out by Marcel Haag from the European Commission's Secretariat-General. "Who defines the mission and the mandate? The member states, making it necessary to come to some kind of agreement on the organisation and funding [of SSGI]". According to Claire Roumet, representative of the social NGO platform and treasurer of the European Liaison Committee for Social Housing (CECODHAS), if there is one quality to define an SSGI it would be the "preservation of individual integrity". "Separating the different [social services] is a threat to consistency", she added.


Several key players such as Laurent Ghekiere disagree with those who claim that there are no existing legal bases on which to act. "EU law is flexible enough to introduce certain guarantees into Articles 2, 16 and 86-2. It is therefore not so much a legal problem as a political problem. The Commission needs to fully apply all the clauses in the Treaty and not only those which it feels are important or others". Bernd Schulte from the Max Planck Institute added that "regulation does not automatically imply binding texts, it could also take the form of a Communication explaining Community legislation". Even those members states which have experience of the market advantages such as the Netherlands, need to complete this phase.

"We believe that if the services were to be driven by market forces, the services would improve", said Theo Langejan, Dutch Director-General for Industrial Relations and International Affairs. …