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.
Hailing the first-ever hearing on a Citizens’ Initiative as “a milestone in the history of European democracy” Gerald Häfner (Greens/EFA, Germany), of the Petitions Committee said “Today, we are switching to listening mode. The question now is how we can better legislate on an issue that is crucial. Water is a human right and should remain in public hands”.
"We ask for a clear legislative commitment that water services will not be liberalised in the European Union” said Citizens’ Committee Vice-President Jan Willem Goudriaan. “We shall have a reason to celebrate when the European Commission acts to show that the ECI is not something that you can just shrug off”, he added.
European Commission vice-president in charge of inter-institutional relations, Maroš Šefčovič, said: "Today is a good day for grassroots democracy. I am extremely happy to meet the organisers of this European Citizens' Initiative. Their presence here proves the success of our joint efforts to make this ambitious new instrument of participatory democracy work. It is also positive news more generally, especially in an electoral year, as it shows how it is possible to mobilise and motivate citizens, even across borders."
Evelyne Gebhardt (S&D, Germany) agreed that water should not be governed by market rules and voiced concerns that trade negotiations under way between the EU and third countries could lead to liberalisation through the back door.
Nikolaos Chountis (GUE/NGL, Greece) stressed the citizens’ opposition to « attempted privatisation » of water distribution in Athens and Thessalonika, among the measures allegedly imposed by the ECB/EU Commission/IMF “Troika”.
“There is a very long way to go before the universal human right to safe water and sanitation will be universally enjoyed” said Michèle Striffler (EPP, France), of the Development Committee. “Ensuring sustainable access to safe drinking water, as well as basic sanitation for all is, among other things, good conflict prevention policy."
Philippe Boulland, a French centre-right MEP (European People's Party) and member of the Parliament's petitions committee, warned about the "political motives" behind the initiative on water, which he said are "to prohibit the privitisation of water by questioning the French model of concession management that provides one of the lowest water price in Europe."
"The risk is great," Boulland warned, "to see lobbies claiming to represent citizens and backed by MEPs, organising European Citizens' Initiatives for political reasons."
- 20 March: Deadline for first follow-up decision by the European Commission