Services of general interest
Services of general interest are those services, subject to public regulation, whose provision meets a public need.
The term ‘services of general interest’ (SGIs) is not mentioned in the TFEU. Its meaning derives, in Union practice, from the more common term ‘services of general economic interest’ (SGEIs), which is used in articles 14 and 106(2) TFEU. A precise definition of ‘services of general economic interest’ is also lacking in the Treaties as well as in secondary legislation. However, there is general agreement on using this expression in reference to services of an economic nature on which Member States or the Union impose specific public service obligations by virtue of a general interest criterion: transport, postal services, water, waste disposal, energy, telecommunications and all the other activities subject to public service obligations. The term ‘services of general interest’ covers a broader range of activities than SGEIs do, including both market and non-market services, such as healthcare, education and social services.
Since the first steps of European economic integration, a large number of sectors, also those providing SGIs and SGEIs, have been opened up to market liberalisation.
A general overview of the situation in Europe with regard to SGIs and SGEIs illustrates the complexity and the differences among the Member States in terms of quality level, sectors concerned, organisation and terminology, thus reflecting different historical, geographical, cultural and political developments. Furthermore, it raises the central issue of the role of public authorities in a market economy, taking into consideration the smooth functioning of the market and the safeguarding of the general interest.
Following on from its Communications on services of general interest (COM(1996)443; COM(2000)580), the European Commission launched a process of public consultation through the presentation of the Green Paper on Services of General Interest (COM(2003)270), aimed at discussing the role of the European Union in defining the objectives of the service of general interest, and their organisation, financing and evaluation. In 2004, the European Commission presented the White Paper on services of general interest (COM(2004)374) containing the conclusions following the public debate opened up by the Green Paper. It describes the European Union’s strategy for promoting the development of high-quality services of general interest within the reach of all citizens and enterprises in the European Union.
On 29 April 2006, the European Commission published a further Communication on ‘Implementing the Community Lisbon Programme: Social services of general interest in the European Union’ (COM(2006)177). Social services represent a significant part of SGIs. In September 2006, the European Parliament adopted a report, the so-called Rapkay Report, calling on the European Commission to explain the relationships between EU competition laws and public services, and to analyse how liberalisation and privatisation impact on the different EU Member States.
The European social partners are in full agreement that a Framework Directive is needed to secure services of general interest. With this purpose, ETUC and CEEP proposed in March 2007 a Joint Statement on a European Framework for services of general interest in order to clarify general principles, such as competencies, financing and subsidiarity, before unilateral sectoral initiatives are proposed.