Up until some decades ago, each member state controlled individually its policies, the size of its public sector and the provision of public services to its citizens. The European Union, with the establishment of the common market created a new reality, allowing the free movement of services, and thus affecting the state monopolies offering public services. By creating a parallel network of service provision in domains such as telecommunications, transport and energy, the EU introduced indirectly competition for public services. In fact, it allowed some member states to openly consider the ability of the public sector to provide services within the current structure and to incorporate new policies and measures – from public private partnerships in funding to privately run and publicly managed services – in order to increase their efficiency and to achieve their mission, offering high-quality services within the internal market.
It is not the Lisbon Strategy that opened the way for ‘revamping’ public services. The new reality for public services was created in 1987 with the signing of the Single European Act and the support of Commission President Jacques Delors. This was also supported by many socialist prime ministers at the time, including the then Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.
The past two years, the European Union has been more daring in promoting the opening up of national public services. After the successful examples of sectors such as gas and electricity, postal services and telecoms, the EU moved towards a Directive for Services in the Internal Market. This move however triggered a long debate on the inclusion of some public services, namely social and health ones, raising reactions from vested interests in favour of maintaining the inefficiency of some public services while at the same time safeguarding their own prevailing market position. The confrontation has now moved on within the framework of the services of general interest debate. And I wonder: how will the status quo and the current structure of state monopolies protect citizens’ rights?
Sceptics towards a more ‘open’ approach to public services, whether these are services of general economic interest, social services or even health services, strongly oppose any change to the existing state monopolies in an competitive internal market. They preach that competition may hamper the benefits that public services now offer to all. Is this however the actual truth? Is there really no more potential for more high-quality services that are affordable and accessible to all? Let us see the myths an internal market for public services is being set against:
– “Public services would stop being free for all”. Public services were never for free. The delusion hides behind the tax payers’ annual contributions.
– “Public services would stop serving citizens in remote areas or people with special needs”. Existing EU legislation has already introduced the principle of ‘universal services’ precisely so that such a mishap will be overcome.
– “Member states would stop providing high-quality public services”. Even member states such as the UK and Sweden, with socialist governments, have began revising their policies, as the existing public sector structure has become rigid and inefficient.
At the same time, generalising is not the most, dare I say, efficient method of progressing. There are of course some public services that can only be provided by the state, such as public order. Moreover, we should not mistaken liberalisation with privatisation of the public sector, even though my personal viewpoint is that privatisation could prove beneficial in some cases. What I do believe is that shutting the doors that the internal market has opened could only hamper the member states’ markets and economies and the EU citizens’ right to high quality services.
I hope that the proposed Directive for Services in the Internal Market, as well as the White Paper on Services of General Interest will provide more potential to the debate on the efficiency of public services, and also a proof that the unsubstantiated objections currently prevailing in the opposition are nothing more than a self-pertaining tactic based on ideas and ideologies long surpassed.