Public services package
Commission could have done better, say stakeholders
By Sophie Mosca | Wednesday 21 December 2011
Stakeholders are not particularly enthusiastic in their reactions to the European Commission’s proposals on public services, published on 20 December. The package of texts includes a modernisation of public procurement rules, reform of state aid rules for services of general economic interest (SGEIs) and a communication from the Commission president on a framework for European services of general interest (SGI). While noteworthy advances on the first two elements of the package are appreciated, despite certain reservations, disappointment is the unanimous reaction to the third element.
For EBC (construction SMEs), the proposal for modernisation of public procurement directives will help improve SME access to contracts. Its President, Andrea Marconi, voiced satisfaction over the “division of contracts into lots, direct payment of subcontactors and self-certification, three key elements sought by the EBC”. The UEAPME echoed that view and stressed other positive points, such as the lower turnover required for companies bidding for public contracts. However, the association’s Secretary-General, Andrea Benassi, expressed reservations about the shorter 30-day deadline for submitting bids and use of the negotiated procedure, which are “a black mark on a set of otherwise impressive proposals”.
For BusinessEurope, this reform is “useless” because the problem lies in non-application of rules at national level and a lack of training for contracting authorities, “crucial elements for enhancing legal certainty for undertakings”.
Reactions were also lukewarm to the package revising state aid rules for SGEIs. Union sociale pour l’Habitat, which represents French social housing undertakings, is relieved over renewal of the exemption from prior notification (with no threshold imposed) granted to this sector, but regrets the continuation of a restrictive concept of social housing that excludes the broader objectives of achieving a social mix.
For the Committee of the Regions’ rapporteur on this issue, Karl-Heinz Lambertz (PES, Belgium), “the glass is half empty,” particularly with regard to the de minimis threshold of €500,000 over three years, below which public aid is not subject to the Commission’s state aid control: “the reference amount still covers far too many local services provided by small municipalities”. The Committee of the Regions suggested in its opinion a threshold of €800,000 per year.
Unquestionably, the communication establishing a quality framework for services of general interest (see separate article) is the element of the package that sparked the most criticism. Karl-Heinz Lambertz regrets the unsatisfactory response on how to deal with the new Lisbon Treaty provisions and stressed the importance of public services. This package cannot be “the Commission’s last word for defending a vision for quality public services”. He added that the Commission’s approach “that the best option is to tender at lowest cost only is blind reliance on market forces”.
The European Centre of enterprises with public participation (CEEP) finds it “disappointing,” noting that “it is far from providing the coherent and specific approach on SGIs we deem necessary”. For the Chair of the EP Intergroup on Public Services, Françoise Castex, “the Commission president has once again shirked his commitment to present an overall framework for public services in Europe, a long-standing demand of many stakeholders. We were entitled to expect a strong political signal and not a rehash of texts already presented by different commissioners since the start of the legislature.” French national Pierre Bauby, political science professor and researcher and a specialist in public services, summed up the text as follows: “Move along. There’s nothing to see”.