The Amsterdam Treaty: The 'Social Europe' Factor?

In 1996, the inclusion of a new article on SGI contained in the Treaty of Amsterdam marks the first political victory for the advocates of SGI regulation. In fact, CEEP calls for the re-regulation of welfare services going back to the mid-1980s became stronger in the course of the 1990s as liberalization policies became more assertive in EU policy making. This took the form of a proposal for a ‘charter for services of general interest’. At the time, the idea of a charter distinguished itself from the Anglo-Saxon conception of such charters which aims at formalizing the principles of new public management and is strongly geared towards consumer choice and consumer rights (Clifton et al. 2005). The idea behind the charter advocated by CEEP and ETUC was to flank EU market building policies with a social dimension. The purpose of the charter would therefore be to formulate general principles which would be protective of the societal role of welfare services vis-a-vis competition policy. CEEP advocated the charter during the 1996 intergovernmental conference which led to the adoption of the Treaty of Amsterdam. The following claims were, for example, expressed at a public hearing convened by the EP in 1996:

Now the principles of competition are being given precedence over the consideration of public service protection in the text of the Treaty, in implementing directives and in the case law of the Court ofJustice of the European Community (...) However, the debate is not over. CEEP proposes that a

European charter of services of general economic interest be produced to clarify the rules proposed by this new Treaty article 94 (objectives and obligations, Community policy), leaving the Member States free to decide on the activities which form part of "services of general economic interest". The charter would also stress the necessary regulation to be enforced by an independent administrative body or an operator who can provide sufficient guarantees. Lastly, the charter would envisage the establishment at Community level of an observatory with the remit of assessing services of general economic interest. (European Parliament 1996)

The activities of CEEP were largely supported and shaped by the French campaign for the re-regulation of welfare services at the EU level. According to Heritier (2001), the recognition of SGI in the Treaty of Amsterdam is, to a large extent, the result of French activism both at domestic and European level and in various institutional arenas, including the EP and the intergovernmental conference. Since the inception of liberalization policies, France was the country to put up the most resistance. From 1993 onwards, domestic actors, mainly public service technocratic elites, became active within networks such as the Reseau services publics and generate public debate by organizing conferences on welfare services and Europe (Bauby and Boual 1993). The major social unrest in the winter of 1995 provided a heated political context. Triggered by a reform of the pension system put forward by the government, the protest paralysed the country (as it was accompanied by a strike of transport workers) and blame was largely attached to the ‘Europe of Maastricht’ for threatening the French social model (Contamin 2005). Against this backdrop, the French networks expanded to Brussels and organized the first European forum of social actors for SGI, which gathered about 200 participants in November 1994. At this forum, the European Liaison Committee on Services of General Interest (CELSIG) was created. The Committee’s front men were an academic, Pierre Bauby (Science Po/Paris VIII), and a formerly highly profiled representative of the trade union CGT, Jean- Claude Boual, who became the Secretary General of CELSIG. CELSIG engaged with active advocacy targeting the intergovernmental conference by organizing, for example, two forums in February and October 1996.

At the time, it gained significant support from the European Commission, notably via the former French Prime Minister and Commissioner for

Science, Research and Technology, Edith Cresson. In the run up to the intergovernmental conference, the CELSIG promoted three points: first, to strengthen the legal recognition of SGI in the EU Treaty, notably through a connection with fundamental rights; second, to encourage cooperation among Member States; third, to conduct impartial and regular evaluation of policies in the realm of SGI (CELSIG 1996). In addition to that of the EP, the CELSIG-CEEP-ETUC coalition also received the support of the European Commission. This support materialized in a communication issued as the intergovernmental conference was running in September 1996 (European Parliament 1996). The communication acknowledges that SGI reflect shared values in Europe and that access should be ensured at the Community level through the concept of ‘universal service’; it also suggests that the intergovernmental conference leads to the inclusion of a mention on the Union’s ‘contribution to the promotion of services of general interest’ (p. 15) in Article 3 of the treaty on the values of the EU. However, the Commission also makes explicit that this would not constitute a legal basis for legislation. Finally, the Commission entered into a commitment to develop tools for conducting the evaluation of policies in the various SGI sectors.

At the intergovernmental conference, two coalitions clearly opposed: on the one hand, France, Belgium, Italy and Spain made various propositions to achieve legal recognition of the role of SGI in EU primary law. Whereas the UK supported deregulation of SGI, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany had more ambiguous positions, hoping to shift the blame for unpopular reforms at home to Europe (Heritier 2001, pp. 836-837). Eventually, the Amsterdam Treaty incorporated a new Article (future Article 16 EC) stating that:

Without prejudice to Articles 77, 90 and 92, and given the place occupied by services of general economic interest in the shared values of the Union as well as their role in promoting social and territorial cohesion, the Community and the Member States, each within their respective powers and within the scope of application of this Treaty, shall take care that such services operate on the basis of principles and conditions which enable them to fulfil their missions.

The political breakthrough achieved on SGI with the Treaty of Amsterdam must be seen in the broader political context. In 1997, the social democrats were in government in 12 out of 15 member countries of the EU. European social democracy seemed to be going through a major modernization process under the influence of Tony Blair and the third way, and its German variant forged by Gerhard Schroeder, the Neue Mitte. While more traditionally socialist, the French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin equally embraced a liberally minded version of social democracy. In retrospect, the Treaty of Amsterdam can only be seen as a very ambivalent political moment. On the one hand, following up on the Delors years at the head of the EU Commission, the treaty seemed to constitute an important step towards the establishment of a social market economy at the EU level. Under the impetus of social democratic leaders, the Social Protocol[1] created with the Treaty of Maastricht was incorporated into the EU Treaty after the UK agreed to abandon its original opt out. In addition, a new chapter on employment was included in order to coordinate macro-economic strategies and tackle unemployment. The European Employment Strategy inaugurated a new form of soft governance which would later be formalized as the open method of coordination. On the other hand, the late 1990s appear as a missed rendez-vous with ‘Social Europe’. The political momentum, clearly favourable to the social democrats, eventually resulted in no major breakthrough in terms of advancing a policy programme grounded in positive integration. For many scholars of social democracy in Europe, this is due to the ideological and programmatic change within social democracy as well as to the specific institutional structure of the EU (Moschonas 2005, 2009; Marliere 2010). These dynamics are reflected in the debates surrounding welfare services. While being a political victory for the pro-regulation coalition, the inclusion of Article 16 EC does not alter the ambiguous and fragile balance established by Article 86 between general interest and competition. The following treaty revisions will only accentuate this legal and political contradiction.

  • [1] The Social Protocol was signed in 1992 and builds on the European Social Charter of 1989. Itincluded among others provisions on European work councils, social dialogue between management and unions, and the possibility to transform decisions reached at the EU level into legallybinding collective agreements.
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