Public services – back on EU agenda after more than a decade!

social partners’ hearing on 12 May on access to essential services
social partners’ hearing on 12 May on access to essential services

(17 May 2022) EPSU was delighted to take part in a social partners’ hearing on 12 May on access to essential services. This is the first time since 2011 that a broad initiative on public services has been initiated, in follow-up to the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) that says (in principle 20) everyone should have access to ‘essential services’ that include inter alia water, sanitation, energy, transport, financial services and digital services. The hearing was an opportunity to exchange views on the scope and content of an upcoming Commission report planned for the Autumn that will ‘map’ access to essential services throughout the EU.

Not surprisingly, many in the hearing queried the concept of ‘essential’ services and pointed out that the EPSR mentions elsewhere other services that can also be considered as essential, not least healthcare, social care, education, postal services or public transport. While the upcoming report may focus on a selected number of services, it is important to be coherent and take account of the interlinkages between these different – but all essential - services. The way to do this has been already pointed. A major study carried out in 2020 by the European Social Policy Network (ESPN) rightly concluded that however defined, facilitating access to what are deemed essential services is a public responsibility which entails public obligations.” In all countries there are regulatory frameworks to ensure access to specific services, even if these rarely conceptualised as ‘essential’ services. These regulatory frameworks are important for assisting the vulnerable, but they are also key to well-functioning economies and societies that benefit all of us.

With this in mind at the hearing EPSU pointed out that most if not all Member States have made cuts in essential services during the last decades and that this has had an impact in particular on low-income households and vulnerable groups (see e.g., Eurofound Quality of Life surveys). The upcoming report should not only look at measures to improve the access of vulnerable groups to essential services (as proposed in the background note for the hearing ) but also take into account the overall design, financing and organisation of the service. This includes looking at the wage levels, working conditions, safe staffing levels, competences and skills of the workers in these services as these are an intrinsic part – not an after thought - of the overall design and quality of the service.

The hearing also addressed the impact of EU policies covering some of services that will be covered in the Commission’s report, the so-called /network industries (electricity, gas, telecoms, postal services, transport) that have been subject to EU liberalisation Directives. EPSU, UNI Europa and ETF were very critical in the past of the European Commission’s turning a blind eye to mounting evidence of the failure of liberalisation to reduce prices and improve the quality of services. (see 2007 Press Release and EPSU article April 2006) It was pointed out too that not only low-income households are struggling to access these essential services. Rocketing energy prices and poor internet provision in many areas are evidence that the overall regulatory framework is not ‘fit for future’. It was pointed out in the hearing that France is one of the few countries where energy prices have been controlled (which is basically not allowed under the EU Directives). Affordable and stable prices are not only important for consumers, the whole French economy is benefiting from lower inflation.

That human rights should underpin the EU and Member States policy approach towards essential services was also stressed. This was the aim of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) Right2Water that has been successful until now in blocking EU liberalisation of water and sanitation services, e.g. in the Concessions Directive and recent EU trade agreements. The ECI has helped to ensure that EU and Member States policy on water and sanitation take a human rights approach into account. What is seen as essential varies over time, as for example illustrated by broadband/internet or social care. That is why regulatory frameworks have to ensure that the EU and Member States have the necessary tools to make this a reality for all, setting out the rights of citizens and responsibilities of governments and service providers.