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Social Services of General Interest. At the heart of the European social model – General background note

Social services of general interest, which by definition are local services, are unlike other services. They are associated with the values of equality, inclusion and solidarity, and are at the heart of the European social model, contributing to the social and territorial cohesion of the EU.

The current debate on SSGI raises the central question of the relation between economics and the social sector. In fact, the main problem that concerns many stakeholders is the legal situation of SSGI in view of the internal market and competition rules.

The discussion is actually a very concrete one, beyond the touchy technical and legal aspects, given its consequences for European citizens. SSGI are indeed crucial today to cope with major challenges to growth and employment in a sluggish economic context. This context puts a special touch on the discussion because of the particularly important role that SSGI have played as stabilizers that softened the effects of the recent economic crisis whose repercussions are still felt today.

Social services of general interest are at the crossroads of economic and social reality, and at the intersection of national and European competences. No doubt this contributes to their complexity and the current difficulty for the European Union to formulate concrete responses expressing the actual recognition of the missions and specificities of SSGI.

The complexity of the SSGI issue is so great that it is not always easy to know what is meant when the expression is used.

The objective of this brochure is to rapidly take stock of the SSGI question on the European scene, without any claim of dealing exhaustively with the issue.

The horizontal social clause and social mainstreaming in the EU

Social protection is at the heart of European society. It is the main difference between Europe and other industrialized regions in North America or Asia, and ensures that economic growth coincides with social progress. Since the beginning of the European Union the question arises how the EU can enforce Member States’ social security systems. In its founding Treaty of Rome, the EU states aimed at the promotion of full employment and social progress, the fight against social exclusion and discrimination and the promotion of social justice and social protection.

The horizontal social clause of the new Lisbon treaty calls for an intensified focus on the social dimension of EU policies. Taking into account social effects of all EU policies demands a structural dialogue across and within all EU institutions. It requires all strands of the Council and the Commission to benefit from the expertise inside the social strand. In turn, the debate in the social strand would benefit from pollination with outside discussions. This requires a commitment from the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, to engage in dialogue across and within their institutions.

A key instrument to achieve this is a strong commitment to impact assessment. Assessing social impacts will lead to better informed decision making on the political level, to a stronger social dimension of EU policy, and eventually to a more cohesive European Union. To come to a balanced decision it is essential to assess the EU’s social goals simultaneously with its other objectives. The Belgian EU Presidency highlights the potential of the Commission’s Impact Assessment for a rapid and high quality implementation of the Horizontal Social Clause. At the same time, we are continuing the discussion on how the evaluation of social impacts inside the Commission’s Impact Assessment can be improved in the future, to truly deliver up to the expectations of a strong and social European Union.

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