The European Economic and Social Committee advocates a set of common principles for public services to help ensure full compliance of all Member States with democratic norms and the rule of law.
The Member States are solely responsible for their own public services. However, they must comply with the democratic standards and criteria they had to meet when joining the European Union. They should also recognise the crucial value of well-run public services in defending the core principles of democracy and the rule of law in Europe, maintained EESC rapporteur Christian Moos.
In an opinion voted on by the plenary assembly on 2 December, the EESC points out that, by ensuring equal and universal access to services for all, including vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, public services contribute to social progress and a vibrant society. They can play a key role as "automatic stabiliser" in times of crises, which have multiplied in recent years in areas such as security, the economy, asylum, the environment, climate and health.
In this regard, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has shown how an overburdened health system can place a strain on human dignity. Years of austerity have affected public services, weakening their impact. Poorly performing public services have high social and economic costs. The pandemic has demonstrated the need for public services to have properly trained and skilled staff, resources and reserves. Recognising the fundamental role of public services justifies paying public servants properly throughout Europe.
Christian Moos explained:
Public administration and services are the most important link between governments and civil society and key to the resilience of liberal democracy in Europe. The EU needs effective mechanisms to guarantee the full respect of the rule of law, not least to guarantee the neutrality of public administration in all Member States.
A set of common principles
The EESC identifies a set of common principles for public services and administrations, based on national constitutions in full respect of democracy, the rule of law and common European values:
- The right to good administration reinforces societal trust. Transparency of public services ensures independent oversight and contributes to the fight against corruption.
- Public services have a protective function with regard to the rule of law. Staff working in public services must be protected should they refuse to follow illegitimate service instructions.
- Public services must ensure free access to information and remain available to everyone in person, regardless of digitalisation.
Moreover, the EESC suggests that public services should be interoperable at European level. Exchanges and job rotation amongst Member States' public services should be possible. All the public services involved in allocating European funds must respect and implement public service principles.
EESC co-rapporteur Philip Von Brockdorff said:
This opinion highlights the relevance of shared European values for all public services across the EU and frames this within the meaning of Article 14 of the TFEU and specifically Protocol No 26 on services of general interest. Protocol 26 provides the framework for shaping EU principles in public services. In addition, the opinion refers to the Charter of Human Rights, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and national constitutions as the basis for the proper conduct of public services including safeguards for public officials.
In February 2020, the incoming German Presidency requested the EESC to draft an opinion on the topic of "Public services principles for stability of democratic order". The requesting letter asked the EESC to examine what role public services have been playing and can potentially play in stabilising our democracies based on fundamental freedoms and human rights and the rule of law.