Public services are not to be confused with public undertakings, which may carry out activities which are devoid of any general interest and generally derive from private initiatives, nor, of course, with the civil service itself. Public services are not defined by specific ownership arrangements but by their function: for the public authorities, this function consists of ensuring that citizens have access to services of an economic nature which meet essential general interest requirements and that cannot be satisfactorily met by private initiatives; the services are defined, organized and regulated by the authorities which generally grant them special rights which are perceived as necessary for the service provision. Public services exist whenever a political community decides that a particular economic activity which is vital for the general interest cannot be provided by the market alone.

The concept of the public service is familiar to all European countries and is applied to activities that operate on the basis of major infrastructure networks (distribution of electricity, gas, water, railways, local public transport, postal services, telecommunications) even if not all countries use the term and the organization and level of service vary from one country to another, with the general trend being towards contracting out to private companies under the control of the public authorities or independent regulators.

The very logic of European integration has called into question national public services in so far as they may constitute obstacles to creation of the internal market. The Community institutions have thus taken administrative, judicial and legislative action to liberalize the major networks to a large extent. However, the Treaty of Rome includes derogations in favour of services of general economic interest (first and foremost Article 90(2)) which are now being use to safeguard national public services. Community legislation on networked services now makes provision for concerns of general interest by enabling the Member States to maintain public service obligations or even, in some cases, exclusive rights. It has even gone as far as to guarantee all citizens of the Union equal access to minimum services, referred to as a universal service. In doing so it has created embryo European public services.

A genuine European public service policy is feasible subject to agreement on one objective, namely maintaining an adequate level of general interest in economic activity, and on the means of achieving it, which will depend on striking a balance between the responsibilities of the Union and those of the Member States. This balance will vary from sector to sector. Where the Member States are best placed to act, as in the case of local services, European intervention will be kept to a minimum; elsewhere the Union will be able to define the specific obligations and rights of the service in more or less detail and it will be up to the Member States to flesh out this definition and to determine in full the responsibilities for providing and regulating the services; finally in some cases (for instance on the basis of the trans-European networks) the Union will be able to go as far as assuming full responsibility and setting up European public services.

This policy would be greatly facilitated by 'constitutionalizing' public services at European level by enshrining the concept in the Treaty and in a Charter that will provide a framework for Community decision-makers, and by introducing political and administrative back-up structures.

Thus, following a period of dismantling of national public services, the Union can look forward to constructing a period of public services with a European dimension to meet the fundamental concerns of social and regional cohesion and collective efficiency. In return, the public services sector will help to give Europe an identity based on values shared by all its member countries and will lend it a legitimacy, by bringing the process of European integration closer to the needs of its citizens.

© European Parliament