Today your European party – the European Liberal Democrats – will launch its European election campaign. One of its priorities for the elections worries us. It says “The single market should be reinforced and extended in energy, postal services, railways and health care”.
We are writing to ask you a question, and give you a challenge. Our question is: how do you propose to use the single market to ensure these services remain high-quality, affordable and accessible to all? We warn you: tread carefully, much more carefully than you have in the past. Our challenge to you is to make an unambiguous commitment to protect public services.
Heath care is a public service. Our priority must be to ensure that everyone has access to good quality health care where they live, regardless of ability to pay. This is a fundamental principle: market forces must never be the master of health services. The European Parliament has recently been discussing ‘cross-border health care’: plans to give citizens a right to medical treatment in other EU countries, paid for by their government. While Liberal MEPs have been arguing for an open market for health care without regard for the implications, we Socialists have been working hard to make sure that a privilege for a few – less than 1 per cent of patients – does not undermine health care for the many. It sounds nice for a patient from Belgium to travel, let’s say, to Austria for treatment, but how much will it cost and where does the money come from ultimately - from local health services or is it the patient who will pay the difference? As so often it may be the richer patient who has the so-called free choice and the poorer patient who will not.
We ask similar questions when it comes to the European Liberals desire to extend the single market in railways and postal services. It is fine to extend the single market, but where is future investment going to come from? Rail infrastructure is not cheap and all major European rail projects are at least partly state-funded. We Socialists say that ultimately the function of railways is not to generate profits for private companies: good, affordable transport is a social and economic necessity. Look at the disastrous railway privatisation in the UK (under the Conservatives).
Postal services have already been exposed to the single market, involving substantial job losses, but no evident benefit for the consumer. With more and more local Post Office closures, perhaps the longer walk to the Post Office is good for our health! What is the advantage of another extension of the single market in postal services?
The EU is about to conclude its third energy liberalisation package. We supported that because the market has a role to play in energy supplies. But greater challenges than more liberalization lie ahead. Has the single market improved security of energy supplies, helped the transition to renewable energy or improved energy efficiency? First and foremost we need a better functioning single market before anything else.
In 2006 socialists in the European Parliament secured an important victory in excluding health and social services from the infamous Services Directive. We did not have the support of most Liberal MEPs. With this stain on your voting record, can the Liberals be trusted to take care of essential public services?
The manifesto of the Party of European Socialists leaves no room for doubt, making our commitment to maintaining the integrity of public services clear “so that European competition and business rules do not run counter to citizens’ rights.” The Liberal manifesto for the European elections makes no such commitment. That’s why we are worried.