On 11.09.1996, the European Commission published a communication on services of general interest (SGI) in Europe in which it underlined the importance of the missions of general interest for the implementation of the fundamental objectives of the European union. It recommended the insertion in the EU treaty of a reference to SGI and provided a definition : the services of general interest designate the service activities, merchant or not, considered as being of general interest by the public authorities and, for this reason, subject to specific obligations of public service.
On 20.09.2000, the European Commission presented a new communication that was an update of the previous one. It maintained the definition of the services of general interest as a key element of the European model of society and noted that the new article 16 of the EU Treaty had confirmed their place among the values shared by the Union as well as their role in the promotion of social and territorial cohesion.
On 21.05.2003, the Commission published a green paper on services of general interest, one of the objectives of which was to define the principles likely to be included in a possible framework directive or in another general instrument on the services of general interest and the added value of such an instrument. The debate launched by the green paper triggered a considerable interest, with as many as 300 contributions received.
On 15.05 .2004, the Commission published a white paper on services of general interest synthesizing the contributions to the green paper.
On 27.9.2006, the European Parliament voted in plenary (by 491 voices in favour, 128 against and 31 abstentions), a " resolution on services of general interest " asking the Commission to clearly define and regulate this still ill-defined sector. This clarification was particularly urgent because meanwhile, the European Commission had approved the text of a directive proposal relative to the services in the internal market drafted by the services of Commissioner Bolkenstein.
This text of this directive based itself on the distinction, very blur and sometimes arbitrary, between the non economic services of general interest and the services of general economic interest [mentioned in the treaty at article 90, and designating the activities of merchant services fulfilling missions of general interest, and thus subject by the members states to specific obligations of public services]. The species was thus defined before the genus.
When it proposed the text, the Commission was far from imagining the size and the intensity of the reactions of rejection that it was going to provoke. Mrs. Gebhardt, European deputy and rapporteur of the IMCO (Internal Market) Commission of the European parliament declared that there were only two possible options: either to withdraw the proposal, or to work on it again in depth. The proposal was not withdrawn and although it was indeed redrafted (there were more than 1153 proposed amendments), it it was certainly not in depth except for the very important abandonment of the principle of the country of origin.
After two years of procedure, the text of the directive will be submitted for a second reading to the European Parliament during its plenary session of November 13-16, 2006. It will be the text of the common position presented by the Council in July 2006. Indeed, the last amendments that had been proposed by Mrs. Gebhardt : exclusion of the general interest services [deletion of the mention non economic], exclusion of the social services such as... [deletion of the term relative] were not maintained by the IMCO (Internal Market) Commission of the European Parliament on Monday October 23. This happens while the clarification requested to the Commission on the notion of service of general interest has not yet been come about.
As mentioned in the beginning, the ongoing debate on the services of general interest at the European level goes far beyond the final version and the technicalities of the Service directive. It has to do with the very concept of general interest. When we know that a cooperative defines itself as an “association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations...” (ILO, R193, art.2) and when one reads the cooperative principles, and in particular the 7th: “cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members”, one cannot deny that there is a link between our type of enterprises and the concept of general interest. This explains and justifies CECOP’s concerns.
Obviously, CECOP is aware of the interest for all of an opening of the European market to services, as long as this is not done in a precipitous way and ignoring the national social realities. An essential question should be clarified before any other: what will be, for the European citizens, the impact of a sectoral approach to services and of the enforcement of competition law on the services of general interest and on the services of general economic interest?