Commission strategy on services of general interest (SGI)

Mr President, Commissioner, I have to admit that I prefer to discuss foreign policy with you, because that is where your heart lies. The fact is, though, that you have to take this opportunity too. What I did not like about the statement you had to deliver, I think, was its failure to acknowledge that the present European social model is supported by a majority of this House. A narrow majority perhaps, but still a majority. I believe it is also supported by the majority of the European population, who see services of general interest as something different from the other goods and services that are on offer. I believe that the basis for any consideration of services of general interest is the identification of the specific interests of the general public, and here I am certainly at one with Mr Karas. In contrast to many other services, people can also help to determine, by the way they vote in elections, the range of services of general interest available to them, especially if these services are provided by or on behalf of regional or local authorities.
People want sufficient high-quality public services at a reasonable price. The market may well be an instrument with which this aim can be achieved – I certainly do not rule that out – if its activity is governed by proper guidelines. The basic guidelines would therefore have to be set by means of a legal act adopted jointly by the Council and Parliament. That goes without saying, in my view, and the Commission must surely agree. We can still discuss the precise details of the legal framework, but there must be a legal framework that takes account of the special nature of services of general interest and the needs they are designed to satisfy. Our preferred option is, of course, the framework envisaged in the draft constitution. Although we do not yet have a constitution, this is the direction in which we should be moving. Far too many of our citizens are discovering that liberalisation – which, admittedly, is often accompanied by privatisation – is resulting in fragmentation of services. I have heard, for example, that no fewer than 28 companies are operating on bus routes in the city of Manchester following deregulation. All too often, the price cuts resulting from liberalisation are short-lived, and new monopolies frequently emerge – private monopolies, which are no better than public monopolies. Indeed, they are worse, because they cannot be influenced at the ballot box.
I also believe that, in full accordance with the principle of subsidiarity – of which you, in fact, wholeheartedly approve – the only thing we should ask of the Commission is that it create a legal framework for public services. In all other respects, just as the clamour was once for freedom of thought, I would now appeal for freedom of structure, for the right of local and regional communities and authorities, which know best how to provide the services that people actually need, to structure public services as they see fit. The Commission should commit itself to this approach.