This summary (PE 165.202, published in May 1997) is available in HTML in English, French and German. The full text (published May 1996) of the study summarized here is available in English, French and German (PDF files, c. 500 KB).




Part I:The situation of public undertakings in the European Union
Chapter 1Concept and organisation of public undertakings
Chapter 2Position of public undertakings in the economy
Part II:Public service missions attributed to undertakings in the Member States
Chapter 1The basic mechanism of public services
Chapter 2Public services in the main utilities
Part III:Public services and Europe
Chapter 1European competence in public services
Chapter 2The exercise of the EU's competence - the Community's attitude to public services
Chapter 3Elements of a European policy for public services


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The study summarized and partly updated here has been produced at the request of the European Parliament's Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and Industrial Policy. It was preceded by a preliminary study completed in February 1994 which served as a basis for the resolution tabled by Mr Speciale and adopted by Parliament on 6 May 1994. It covers the twelve countries which made up the European Union before the last enlargement.

The section of the study on the public service missions of undertakings was based on research on nine Member States conducted by the CIRIEC (International Centre for Research and Information on Collective Economy), a scientific body headed by Professor Thiry, which has at its disposal a network of experts in the various countries of the European Union. The author expresses his thanks to each of the nine experts for their patient research in response to his questions. The statistics on public undertakings were compiled and kindly provided by Mr Bizaguet of the European Centre of Undertakings with Public Participation. Two Robert Schuman scholars of the European Parliament's Directorate-General for Research, Ms Ebbers and Mr de Almeida, made valuable contributions to the research on public service undertakings in Germany and Portugal.

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The traditionally important place of both public undertakings and public service activities in European countries has declined in recent years. Public undertakings have undergone large-scale privatisation, which is still under way in several countries. At the same time the very idea of public service, i.e. an economic activity in the general interest and therefore accorded special rights and obligations by the public authorities whether carried out directly by these authorities, by public undertakings or by private firms, is being called into question by the trend towards 'deregulation' or 'liberalisation', which tends to the view that these activities are entirely a matter for the private sector and market forces. Although the Treaty of Rome is neutral with regard to the nature, public or private, of property, European unification has fostered liberalization: the very rationale of the customs union and the single market, namely the removal of all obstacles to intra-Community trade in goods and services, was bound to threaten the special rights created by Member States to protect their public services against market forces.

Looking beyond public undertakings, then, one has to address the 'public service' itself. The notion has to be examined in principle: its substance and the usual ways in which it is organized. It is also necessary to survey in detail the way in which it is implemented in the national economies. In practice, it applies mainly to the utilities or 'networked' activities and the survey can be confined to the most significant of these networks: electricity, gas, water, railways, local public transport, postal services and telecommunications.

In order to assess the European dimension of public services, the analysis has to consider the European Union's involvement; it must therefore cover the Union's legal competence, on the basis of the Treaties, to deal with these activities, how it uses this competence, in particular in the case of the Commission in its capacity as the Community's executive and initiator of Community law, and, finally, the possibility of a European consensus on what constitutes a public service and a policy that will accord it due importance, at least by establishing the general principles and rules applicable to national public services and possibly envisaging the creation of public services at the European level.

The study covers the following:

I. The situation of public undertakings in the Union: how they are organised and their importance to the economy.

II. Public services in Member States: general concept and how it is applied to the main utilities;

III. Public services and Europe: competence and present attitude of the Union with regard to public services; substance and instruments of any future European public services policy.

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