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Social services of general interest

This summary has been archived and will not be updated, because the summarised document is no longer in force or does not reflect the current situation.

Social services of general interest

This Communication is a further step towards taking into account the specific nature of social services at European level. It presents an open list of characteristics reflecting the specific nature of social services as services of general interest. It clarifies the conditions for applying Community rules to such services.


Communication from the Commission of 26 April 2006, Implementing the Community Lisbon programme: Social services of general interest in the European Union [COM(2006) 177 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


The Member States are given the freedom to define services of general economic interest and particularly social services of general interest, and to define the obligations and missions relating to such services and their organisational principles. On the other hand, the Community framework requires Member States to take certain rules into account when they determine the arrangements for applying the objectives and principles they have established.

This Communication does not deal with health services. In document COM(2006) 122 final, the Commission has undertaken to present a specific initiative for this field.

Social services occupy an important place within European society and the European economy.

Social services often contain one or more of the following organisational characteristics:

  • they operate on the basis of the solidarity principle;
  • they are comprehensive and personalised, integrating the response to differing needs in order to guarantee fundamental human rights and protect the most vulnerable;
  • they are not for profit;
  • they include the participation of voluntary workers;
  • they are strongly rooted in local cultural traditions. This finds its expression in particular in the proximity between the provider of the service and the beneficiary;
  • there is an asymmetric relationship between the provider and the beneficiaries of the service that cannot be assimilated to a 'normal' supplier/consumer relationship.

The social service sector, which is in the midst of expansion and experiencing increasing levels of competition, is undergoing a process of modernisation, which may take the following forms:

  • the introduction of benchmarking methods, quality assurance, and the involvement of users in administration;
  • the decentralisation of the organisation of these services to the local or regional level;
  • the outsourcing of public service tasks to the private sector, with the public authorities regulating competition;
  • the development of public-private partnerships and the use of other forms of funding to complement public funding.

The application of Community rules in the area of social services

The Member States must comply with Community law and the case-law of the Court of Justice when establishing the means of implementing the objectives and principles they have set themselves.

When services of an economic nature are involved, the Member States must ensure that their organisational arrangements are compatible with competition law in particular and also with the rules on the freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment.

The Communication focuses on the most common organisational arrangements:

  • the partial or complete delegation of a social mission by the public authorities to an external partner or the creation of a public-private partnership;
  • the granting of public financial compensation to external organisations carrying out a social task of general interest;
  • regulation of the market.

Analysis of the compatibility with Community law of the organisational arrangements for social services must be carried out on a case-by-case basis.

An in-depth consultation on the specific characteristics of social services

The European Commission intends to consult with all the actors involved, namely the Member States and the providers and users of the services. The consultation will look at:

  • the factors constituting these characteristics and their relevance to identifying the specific features of social services of general interest;
  • the ways for the Member States to take these features into consideration when defining tasks of general interest;
  • the experiences with applying Community law in the field of social services of general interest and the possible problems faced in this context;
  • how these characteristics could be considered by the Commission when checking compliance with the applicable Community rules.

In order to improve the mutual knowledge of operators and the Commission in matters relating to the application of Community rules and in order to deepen the exchange of information, a monitoring and dialogue procedure in the form of biennial reports will be established.

In early 2006, the Commission launched a study to collect the necessary information to draft the first biennial report. The information will concern the functioning of the sector, its socio-economic importance, as well as the implications of the application of Community law. The results of the study are expected by mid 2007.


This Communication follows the White Paper on services of general interest and the Social Agenda, which announced a systematic approach to identify and recognise the specific characteristics of social and health services of general interest and to clarify the framework in which they operate and may be modernised. In March 2006, the European Council reiterated the need to maintain the European social model in the complex task of making the internal market for services fully operational.


Communication from the Commission on the Social Agenda [COM (2005) 33 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

The European Commission proposes a new social policy agenda for the period 2006-2010. The main objective of this new agenda is "a social Europe in the global economy: jobs and opportunities for all".

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions of 12 May 2004 entitled " White Paper on services of general interest " [COM(2004) 374 final - Not yet published in the Official Journal].

Presented as an extension of the Green Paper on services of general interest, the Commission White Paper describes the European Union's strategy for promoting the development of high-quality services of general interest. It presents the main elements of a strategy aimed at ensuring that all citizens and enterprises in the Union have access to high-quality and affordable services of general interest.

Commission Green Paper of 21 May 2003 on services of general interest [COM(2003) 270 final - Official Journal C 76 of 25 March 2004].

The Commission, in this Green Paper, undertakes to conduct a complete review of its policies on services of general interest. Its objective is to organise an open debate on the overall role of the Union in the definition of the objectives of general interest pursued by these services and on how they are organised, funded and evaluated. The Green Paper reaffirms the significant contribution of the internal market and competition rules to modernising and improving the quality and effectiveness of many public services, to the benefit of Europe's citizens and businesses. It also deals with globalisation and liberalisation, raising the question of whether a general legislative framework should be established at Community level for services of general interest.

Last updated: 16.08.2006