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Services of general interest

INTRODUCTION

The Treaty of Lisbon offers better protection for services of general interest in the European Union (EU). In particular, it specifies the nature of these services and the principles connected to them.

In addition, the Treaty of Lisbon creates a new legal basis specific to services of general economic interest. The objective is to provide a legal framework for these services at European level.

DEFINITIONS

Services of general interest bring together market and non-market services which are subject to certain public service obligations, due in particular to the general interest they serve.

Services of general economic interest (SGEI) constitute a sub-category and bring together mainly market services. These services are also subject to public service obligations and as such may derogate from certain European rules, particularly in the area of competition. These services include services in the energy, transport and telecommunications sectors.

Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU specifies that undertakings entrusted with the operation of SGEI are subject to European law only in so far as these rules do not obstruct the particular tasks which they must carry out.

RECOGNISING SERVICES OF GENERAL INTEREST IN THE EU

Recognising services of general interest in the EU is complex as the means of managing these services vary widely depending on the traditions of the Member States. For a long time the EU considered SGEI solely from the perspective of competition law, for example by recognising that the implementation of SGEI could derogate from the rules of free competition.

However, the Treaty of Lisbon breaks new ground by adding a protocol on services of general interest to the founding Treaties. This protocol, which has the same legal value as the Treaties, specifies the protection to be afforded to SGEI at European level. It recognises:

  • the role and discretionary powers of the national authorities in operating SGEI;
  • the diversity of SGEI, due in particular to the geographical areas and different cultures;
  • the high level of quality, and the equal treatment of users and universal access to SGEI.

LEGAL FRAMEWORK FOR SGEI AT EUROPEAN LEVEL

The Treaty of Lisbon introduces another innovation. It creates a new legal basis which enables the European institutions to adopt regulations concerning the operation of SGEI. Article 14 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU specifies that the Council and the Parliament may establish certain principles and conditions relating to the commissioning and financing of SGEI.

This legal basis should therefore enable the EU to reconcile the general interest in the best possible way with compliance with the rules on competition in the operation of SGEI. However, the Treaty on European Union specifies that EU intervention shall not affect the competency of Member States. The latter are therefore free to define and organise the SGEI which they provide to their citizens.

This summary is for information only. It is not designed to interpret or replace the reference document, which remains the only binding legal text.

Last updated: 08.06.2010
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