EU single market

On 20 December the European Commission published a Communication on Services of General Interest in the EU, which brings together in a single framework the actions the Commission intends to pursue in this area. Most public services, including social services, are generally seen as being ‘of general interest’. In the communication, ‘social services of general interest’ refer to “social security schemes covering the main risks of life” and “other essential services provided directly to the person that play a preventive and social cohesive role”.

The communication underlines the fundamental role that services of general interest (SGIs) play in promoting social cohesion and in providing a safety net for citizens in the current economic and financial climate. The Commission has set out three broad areas for action:

  • Enhancing clarity and legal certainty for services of general interest
  • Ensuring access to banking, postal and telecoms services for all citizens
  • Reinforcing promotion of quality in the field of social services

It also recognises current budget constraints that “make it necessary to ensure that high-quality services are provided as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible”.

There is an important legal development for social services: they are now exempt from the obligation to notify the Commission of ‘state aid’ according to this requirement: “In order to benefit from the exemption from notification, social services should be clearly identified services, meeting social needs as regards health and long term care, childcare, access to and reintegration into the labour market, social housing and the care and social inclusion of vulnerable groups.” Previously, public authorities have had to notify the Commission of grants to social services operators in excess of €30 million; the Commission would investigate whether this breached EU single market rules.

An important change is proposed by the European Commission but must first be agreed with national ministers (in the Council) and the European Parliament. The Commission proposes to introduce a specific public procurement procedure for social services where the value of the contract exceeds € 500 000, as follows:

  • The contracting authority would have to publish a ‘contract notice’ which provides basic details (e.g. its contact details, description of services, value of contract).
  • Member States would have to ensure full compliance with the principles of transparency and equal treatment in the award of contracts.
  • Contracting authorities would be able to ‘take into account’ various quality principles in awarding contracts, e.g. adaptation to users’ needs and empowerment of users.
  • The contracting authority would have to must publish a ‘contract award notice’ which states, inter alia, who has won the contract, the number of tenders received, the prices paid.

The new package also draws attention again to the EU Social Protection Committee’s Voluntary European Quality Framework for social services published in 2010. This quality framework enumerates various principles for social services: available, accessible, affordable, person-centred, comprehensive, continuous and outcome-oriented. The Commission is supporting various transnational projects that aim to adapt this framework for specific sectors and raise awareness of it at national and sub-national level. ESN is involved in a project for the ‘wellbeing and dignity of older persons’ that is led by AGE Platform Europe and has 13 national coalitions.