One of the most controversial proposals ever debated in the European Parliament, the Services Directive, is just starting the second reading process. At first reading, some 1600 amendments were tabled by MEPs during an exhaustive series of Committee meetings stretching over almost 2 years.
The idea is to provide a framework which would allow service industries to provide services throughout the EU, just as manufacturers already have the right to market their goods in any EU member state. The EU Commissionʼs original proposal was so wide ranging in scope that it could have led to open tendering for almost all essential public services, and could have undermined quality standards and controls by designating the service companiesʼ home country as monitoring authority, rather than the government of the country in which the service would be provided.
MEPs have had much arguing to do over what is, or is not, an essential public service with reference to the Services Directive. 50,000 public sector workers took to the streets of Strasbourg in February to protest about the Commissionʼs proposals and, as the debate rumbled on I am pleased to report that the SNPʼs Group tabled many amendments, designed to ensure that services which are essential to the well-being of our citizens are protected.
Under the Commissionʼs initial proposals, services such as health, education and social care could have been subject to the rules of the market, with service providers competing across the EU, regulated by the country in which they were based. So, a healthcare company based in Tallinn providing services in Scotland would be regulated by the Estonian authorities.
Companies could base themselves in member states with the most lax regulations, leaving the countries in which they plied their trade with no redress. Understandably, workers were anxious about threats to pay and conditions.
The idea of reducing red tape, and eliminating obstacles which currently discourage service industries from seeking to expand beyond their home country, is a good one in principle, but I do not believe that it makes sense to treat health, education or social care in the same way as hairdressing, home decorating, architecture or estate agency. Ultimately, a majority of MEPs voted for very substantial amendment of the draft directive at first reading, which has led to a major re-think by the Commission.
Revisions now tabled by the Commission include reducing the scope, by removing public sector housing, health and certain social services, and ditching the so-called ʻcountry of originʼ principle. While welcome, these concessions may not be enough to allay fears that essential services could be privatised by the back door.
We are now set for weeks of wrangling over the woolly wording which characterises the proposed compromise likely to be supported by the Tory, Labour and Liberal groups.
Striking the right balance between enabling service sector businesses to ply their trade across the EU, while ensuring that member states retain the right to set and regulate standards and consumer protection mechanisms, is essential. The SNP will promote amendments to make that balance achievable, and will fight to ensure that decision making power over essential public service delivery remains with local and national government in Scotland.