The services of general interest indicate "market" and "non-market" activities, considered to be of general interest by the public authorities, and subjected for this reason to specific public service obligations. Article 106 of the Treaty on the functioning of the EU (ex Article 86 TEC) states that undertakings entrusted with the operation of (market) services of general economic interest are subject to the rules contained in the Treaties, in particular to the rules on competition, in so far as the application of such rules does not obstruct the performance of the particular tasks assigned to them (postal, telecommunications, transport, electricity, broadcasting, etc.). A Commission Decision sets out the conditions under which State aid in the form of public service compensation granted to certain undertakings entrusted with the operation of services of general economic interest is compatible with the internal market [Decision 2012/21 and communications from the Commission].
The evolutionary concept of "universal service", developed by the European institutions, refers to a set of general interest requirements, which should be satisfied by the operators of such services to make sure that all citizens have access to certain essential services of high quality at prices they can afford [COM/2000/0580 and COM/2001/0598]. It is sensitive to national diversity and takes into consideration the special features of the European model of society [see section 13.1].
General interest services are a key element of the single market and of European competitiveness. They have to contend with significant changes in terms of the economy, technology and consumer requirements. To respond to these changes, Community action is designed to modernise these services to ensure that essential needs continue to be met and that performance is improved. Based on Article 106 (TFEU, ex Article 86 TEC), Community action takes account of the subsidiarity principle and tries to maintain a balance between market play and general interest in the form of universal service or public service obligations. The Commission has identified a number of guidelines in the field of general-interest services with the aim of formulating a coherent policy in this area [COM/2004/0374].
Article 14 of the Treaty on the functioning of the EU (ex Article 16 TEC) specifies that, without prejudice to Articles 93, 106 and 107 (TFEU), and given the place occupied by services of general economic interest in the shared values of the Union, the Union and the Member States must take care that such services operate on the basis of principles and conditions which enable them to fulfil their missions. Protocol 29 annexed to the treaty of Lisbon asserts that public service broadcasting is directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of each society and to the need to preserve media pluralism. Therefore, the provisions of the Treaty are without prejudice to the competence of Member States to provide for the funding of public service broadcasting, provided that certain conditions are met, notably that such funding does not affect trading conditions and competition in the Union to an extent which would be contrary to the common interest [see section 10.2].
A Directive on common rules for the proper functioning of the internal market, the gradual liberalisation and the improvement of quality of postal services set up a Community regulatory framework for these services [Directive 97/67]. It defines the universal postal service which must be guaranteed throughout the Union, sets limits to the postal monopoly and provides a timetable for the controlled opening of the postal market to competition. In order to guarantee the financial viability of the national providers of universal service, the Directive sets out the harmonised criteria for the services which are to be reserved for universal service providers. The final date for achieving full market opening of postal services is 31 December 2010, with the possibility for some Member States to postpone the full market opening by a maximum of two more years.