(19 July 2023) On 28 June, the European Commission published its long-awaited report on ‘access to essential services: key challenges for the most vulnerable’.
The report covers water, sanitation, energy, transport, financial services and digital communications. It builds on work in 2020 from the European Social Policy Network (ESPN) that analysed measures, policy frameworks and reforms that countries have put in place to help people on low incomes access essential services.
EPSU participated in a targeted social partners consultation organised by the Commission in May 2022 on the EPSN report and follow-up to it. EPSU argued that as well supporting access to essential services by low-income / vulnerable or disadvantaged groups, the EU and Member States also need to strengthen the general frameworks that apply to essential services, in order to ensure that they are inclusive of everyone. This is called for by the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the EU Services of General Interest (SGI) Protocol - see EPSU article. Cuts in public services, liberalisation and privatisation policies in the last decades weakened the inclusivity and resilience of many public services, not least health and social care as we saw during the COVID-19 crisis. Not only low-income households are struggling to access essential services. Rocketing energy prices for example are evidence of shortcomings in regulatory frameworks.
The Commission’s report however does not address the broader regulatory and financial frameworks that govern essential services. It maintains a narrow focus, looking only at access (and to a lesser extent availability) by vulnerable and disadvantaged groups to specific services. For example, while much is said in the report on the need to improve digital skills of vulnerable groups so they can access more easily services, very little is said about how digital services themselves can be designed to guarantee inclusivity. By way of comparison, on the Single Points of Contact set up under Services Directive, the Commission’s Handbook writes clearly:
…In any case, it would not be sufficient if Member States provided a mere list or compilation of web links on a central webpage. In particular, it is necessary to provide support to users who may have difficulties in using the online services. Member States should therefore set up helplines that would not only address potential IT issues but also help guide users to the services relevant for them.(*)
Nonetheless, the report does contain a lot of data and useful information on developments in the different services covered and this should help lay the ground for further work to implement Principle 20 (and related principles) of the European Pillar of Social Rights. These Principles affirm the fundamental right of everyone to access essential services. The report also includes an overview of existing support measures for vulnerable groups in different EU countries, as well as EU funding mechanisms and examples of specific EU legislation.
(*) European Commission, Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, Handbook on the implementation of the Services Directive, Publications Office of the European Union, 2022, https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2873/140, page 33.
For the Commission report see here