In a debate during the French presidential campaign of 2017, the candidate François Asselineau (UPR, sovereigntist) declared: “If public services are currently being dismantled, it is under pressure from the European Union [...]. Article 106 [...] requires us gradually [...] to privatize one by one all the great French public services” (4 April 2017). This is incorrect, for France as well as for other European countries.
It is true that Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the UE sets out general principles for the liberalization of services, including public services. But Mr. Asselineau made two mistakes:
1/ He confused liberalization with privatization:
- Liberalization means opening a once-monopolistic sector to competition, not killing off or privatizing the “legacy” operator. In this way, in France, La Poste has not disappeared (and indeed has remained public), despite the appearance of private competitors.
- Privatization means selling a public company to private shareholders. Sometimes this follows logically from liberalization (such as with Air France), but the decision is completely independent of the European treaties and one made by the member-state government (and generally motivated by budgetary considerations).
2/ He focused on the wrong thing. It is not Article 106 which imposes the liberalization of various economic sectors. If it were, all public services would have been liberalized long ago, since this provision has featured in the European treaties since 1957. European liberalization policy consists of directives and regulations which each address a particular market: postal services in 1997 and 2002, electricity and gas in 1996, 1998 and 2003, air transport in 1997, among others. Moreover, these “liberalization packages” are not imposed unilaterally by the European Commission but rather are worked out with European governments and the European Parliament.
In 2016 France and Germany successfully defended their interests during negotiations on rail-transport liberalization. In particular, they ensured that the SNCF and Deutsche Bahn would not be broken up as some proponents of liberalization wanted.