The European Parliament launched the debate yesterday (17 February) on the first successful European citizens’ initiative, on the right to water. While MEPs largely expressed support for its main aim, they were divided on whether water services should be private or public.

The European citizens’ initiative Right2Water, which calls for the European Commission to propose legislation recognising water and sanitation as a human right, received 1.68 million signatures, well over the 1 million needed for it to reach the EU institutions. The Commission received the citizens call for legislation on 20 December.

The initiative urges the EU to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation and that the EU increases its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation, including in the developing world.

The organisers also ask the EU institutions to exclude water supply and management from “internal market rules” and liberalisation, which they say can cut it off from poor families.

“Too many citizens are still excluded from high quality water and sanitation services,” said Anne-Marie Perret, the chair of the citizens’ committee on the right to water initiative. “It is important that citizens should be able to pay reasonable rates reflecting their needs, not those of distribution company shareholders. Today, they no longer hesitate to cut off the water of families in difficulty,” she said.

Privatisation and pricing

While MEPs said that more could be done in terms of water supply within the 28-country bloc, the initiative’s position against liberalisation led the debate to take a political turn.

“Liberalisation would work to the benefit of the large multinationals to the detriment of the rivers and the local [areas], which would prefer a greener, more inclusive approach,” Perret said.

Erhard Ott, a member of the board of management of Germany’s Unified Service Sector Union, said: “Human rights take precedence over other concerns. Water isn’t just a product. No one should be able to appropriate water and profit from it.”

But Chris Davies, a British Liberal MEP, spoke of the success of the UK privatised water systems. “It’s expensive to provide quality water”, he said, adding that the private sector could ensure efficiency of delivery at an affordable cost for local authorities.

About one third of EU citizens already receive their water from privately managed systems, which usually operate under strict conditions in terms of pricing and social considerations. "The organisers [of the initiative] look to disturb our profession", Gérard Payen, the president of the International Federation of Private Water Operators, told EurActiv.

Richard Seeber, a German member of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group and president of the parliamentary intergroup on water, agreed that water "should be accessible and affordable for all”. But he added that the EU needed to respect the differences of delivery in the member states, saying: “We have to stick to the treaties on this”.

Sophie Auconie, a French MEP from the EPP group, backed calls for making water "a constitutional right guaranteed to all". But she warned about confusing the debate, saying the water can be considered a public good while the tap and pipes which carry it can be run privately.

"In France, both public and private operators are able to provide quality water without omitting social realities, through appropriate pricing and solidarity mechanisms. This is true for many European countries and the possibility to choose the most suitable operator must remain," Auconie said.