The COVID-19 outbreak, and the response to safeguard public health by limiting social life, has been one of the most violent shocks in recent history. Century-defining, the current crisis has already provoked impacts for EU societies on multiple fronts, and its future developments – in terms of chronology, geography and intensity – are hardly anticipable.

The spread of the virus across Europe has caused tens of thousands of deaths, and many more are still fighting in ICU. Hundreds of millions of Europeans are currently in lockdown. The economy is in slowdown, and the medium-term impact is expected to be as violent as the Great Depression or the 2008 crash.

Providers of services of general interest (SGIs) and of public services, which CEEP represents at EU level, are at the frontline in this crisis. With social consequences aggravated by its very nature, the COVID-19 crisis has clearly shown how crucial the provision of those essential services is to the well-being of citizens and the economic resilience of the EU.

Central in shaping the initial answers to the emergency, public services and services of general interest must also be involved at all levels in shaping the medium and long-term visions for the post-COVID-19 world, relying on a sustainable, digital and fair agenda.

SGI employers and providers at the
heart of the crisis

In a context where the threat is economic, social and health-driven, the provision of services of general interest is even more crucial to the well-being of citizens, businesses and the overall economic resilience of the EU. Services such as healthcare, water and energy, waste management, telecommunications, education and transport must remain fully operational in all circumstances, regardless of the challenges faced. As providers of those services and as employers of millions of Europeans, SGI providers must first and foremost ensure that a sufficient number of workers are available to maintain operations in safe manner. That of course includes putting forward additional measures to protect the health and safety of workers, requiring further management efforts and financial costs.

Many SGIs also face significant changes in their usage. Some sectors, such as healthcare, are faced with a sharp upward turn in demand. Managing the immediate life-threatening emergencies, many healthcare structures decided to postpone or cancel most of the other services, which in most cases constitute a significant source of their income. Telecommunication services are also in increasing demand, and have been mobilizing great efforts to ensure their stability and quality. Also, the transport sector, and more specifically public transport, have had to continue operations and run with adapted services, such as providing additional services to and from healthcare infrastructures, or limiting the amount of users per vehicle, inducing additional costs and limited incomes.

Additional crisis-motivated disruptions, such as the difficulties to access supplies – including protective gear for workers in the waste or water sectors – or the sudden drop of the prices of EU Emission Trading for the energy sector, exercise strong pressure on resources to keep activities running. Price fluctuations must be closely monitored, and no efforts should be spared to guarantee that they remain at sustainable levels, for the preservation of high-quality efficient SGIs.

A call for actions at EU level

After the outbreak of the crisis, EU institutions quickly acted to allow a genuine response to the challenges. Quick decisions and the adoption of the temporary suspension of the SGP, the SURE, the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative, as well as the temporary framework for State aid, should help to partly absorb the shock. Building up on this initial response, Member States should now step up and take responsibilities in order to materialise solidarity across Europe.

In times of crisis and uncertainty, EU institutions, as well as the leaders of the 27, should build confidence in the economic and political future of the EU. Politics and economics are heavily influenced by the level of confidence shown by decision-makers. The EU being the best defence line to prevent even deeper impacts for EU citizens, building confidence as a mobilising element should accompany any decisions. The EU as a whole needs to share the burden: the pandemic hits all countries simultaneously and indistinctively, regardless of previous economic or fiscal policy choices, and any failure in setting up burden-sharing mechanisms will put the entire EU internal market, and by extension the EU project as a whole, at risk.

The way forward

Going beyond the immediate emergency, EU institutions and Member States have engaged in talks aimed at fostering the recovery on the medium-term. We believe this recovery relies on 2 main pillars:

– A well-designed Multiannual Financial Framework to address the challenges of the future, relying on a strong Cohesion Policy to help regions most severely hit, on an effective digital agenda and on the principles of the EU Green Deal, aimed at making Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050, as well as on the setting-up of an investment strategy.

– A Recovery Fund and an investment-led Recovery, Plan based on joint instruments, such as recovery-bonds that would allow for a genuine capacity of sharing the burden of the crisis without implying mutualization of existing debts.

Citizens and enterprises have expectations: respecting the lockdowns put in place across Europe, they are doing their part to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Leaders should now provide security and stability to plan for the future, and ensure the continuity of our well-being, relying on fairness, efficient and effective services of general interest, a joint vision for the future and well-funded key infrastructures.

Secretary General of the European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public Services