Demands are being made to clarify the legal position of customers of public services (or "services of general interest") in the EU. In Finland debate has gone on for years concerning essential services such as social welfare and health services, basic banking services, and energy, water and communications services.
European trade unions in particular are demanding that the legal position of public service customers be strengthened in EU legislation to keep the level of services high and to ensure that everyone has access to public services.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has called for the European Commission to propose a framework directive to safeguard public services.
The ETUC criticizes the Commission for following a policy that has concentrated on market-opening and privatization in sectors such as energy, postal services and telecommunications. ETUC has launched a campaign to collect one million signatures on a petition demanding "high quality public services, accessible to all".
The European Parliament also wants measures to clarify the effect of the internal market and competition legislation on the production of public services.
The European Parliament has urged the Commission to clarify the application of competition legislation to services of general interest. It has also asked the Commission to make a clearer distinction between the concepts of "services of general interest" and "services of general economic interest".
Since the 1990s the Finnish Consumer Agency has repeatedly drawn attention to the need to protect consumers' position as users of essential services such as basic banking services, energy, water and communications.
In recent years a special issue has been new ways of producing social welfare and health services, such as outsourcing, privatization and the use of service vouchers.
The introduction of new service models has blurred the line between public and private services and raised questions about the application of consumer law principles to public services. The new models are intended to increase consumers' freedom to choose, stimulate competition and improve the quality of services.
Existing legislation does not necessarily support these goals, however, and special consideration must be given to the position of vulnerable groups. This was pointed out in a study that was prepared last autumn on "The legal position of social welfare and health service customers - Comparison between services arranged by the private sector and local authorities".
Legal position of social welfare and health service customer - Comparison between services arranged by private sector and local authorities (pdf) (www.kuluttajavirasto.fi)