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Brussels, 12 May 2004

Commission defines approach for promoting high-quality services of general interest

The European Commission has today adopted a White Paper setting out the European Union's approach to fostering the development of high-quality services of general interest. The White Paper presents the Commission's conclusions from a broad public consultation launched on the basis of last year's Green Paper (see IP/03/714 ). It highlights the fact that in the area of services of general interest, the responsibilities are shared between the Union and the Member States. It stresses the role of national, regional and local authorities in defining, organising, financing and monitoring services of general interest. The White Paper develops the main elements of an EU strategy aimed both at ensuring that all citizens and businesses have effective access to a broad range of services of general interest and at improving legal certainty. The Commission concludes that, at this stage, there is insufficient evidence of the added value of horizontal framework legislation compared to the existing sector-specific framework.

The White Paper is presented as a follow-up to the Green Paper on services of general interest of 21 May 2003¹. With the Green Paper Commission launched a wide public debate on the EU's role in ensuring the provision of high-quality services of general interest to consumers and businesses. The Green Paper invited comments on the need for and possible added value of framework legislation and on the overall role of the EU in defining the public service objectives pursued by services of general interest and on the way these services are organised, financed and evaluated.

The debate launched by the Green Paper met with considerable interest. The Commission received close to 300 contributions from a wide variety of respondents². Commission staff have prepared a Report on the public consultation which analyses the contributions submitted and provides background material to the White Paper³.

In line with the request made by the European Parliament in its Resolution on the Green Paper of 14 January 20044, the Commission draws its conclusions on the issue in this White Paper. The White Paper outlines the Commission's approach and defines a number of orientations for a coherent policy in the area of services of general interest.

The document defines a number of principles which guide the Commission's policies in the area of services of general interest, such as: maintaining high levels of quality; security and safety; ensuring consumer and user rights; enabling regulation as close as possible to citizens and enterprises; ensuring cohesion and universal access; respecting diversity; performance evaluation; transparency and legal certainty.

One of the key questions raised for public debate concerned the need for a framework directive on services of general interest. The views expressed on the subject in the public consultation remained divided, a number of Member States still being sceptical and discussions in the European Parliament on the issue also being somewhat controversial.

As a result, it remained doubtful whether a framework directive would be the most appropriate way forward at this stage and whether a framework directive would provide sufficient added value. The Commission therefore concludes that it is appropriate not to submit a proposal at this point in time but to re-examine the issue at a later stage. For the time being, the Commission will, as a general rule, pursue and develop its sectoral approach by proposing, where necessary and appropriate, sector-specific rules that allow account to be taken of the specific requirements and situations in each sector.

On the basis of the results of the public consultation, the Commission also considers it necessary to further clarify and simplify the legal framework for the financing of public service obligations. The Commission intends to adopt a package of measures to that effect by July 2005 at the latest. Most elements of this package have already been submitted as drafts for consultation.

Furthermore, the public debate highlighted the need for a clear and transparent framework for the selection of undertakings entrusted with a service of general interest. The Commission intends to examine EU legislation ensuring the transparent award of service concessions. It has therefore launched a consultation on the procurement aspects of public-private partnerships5.

The Green Paper also generated considerable interest among stakeholders in the area of social and health services, who expressed a need for greater predictability and clarity to ensure a smooth evolution of these services. The Commission is of the view that it is useful to develop a systematic approach in order 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 can be modernised. This approach will be set out in a Communication on social services of general interest, including health services, to be adopted in the course of 2005.


The reality of services of general interest in the European Union is complex and constantly evolving. It covers:

  • a broad range of types of activities, from the big network industries (energy, postal services, transport, and telecommunications) to health, education and social services,

  • a wide dimension in the provision of these services, from European or even global to purely local level,

  • services provided on a different basis; some are market based and some non market in their nature.

The organisation of these services varies according to cultural traditions, the history and geographical conditions of each Member State and the characteristics of the activity concerned, in particular technological development.

The full text of the White Paper is available at :

¹ COM(2003) 270, 21.5.2003

² Full text of contributions available on Commission's website at:

³ Report on the public consultation on the Green Paper on services of general interest, Commission Staff Working Paper, SEC(2004) 326, 15.03.2004, available at:

4 European Parliament Resolution of the Green Paper on services of general interest, 14.01.2004 (T5-0018/2004)

5 COM(2004) 327, 30.4

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