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Water RescEU European Citizens Initiative can staunch water privatisations

By John Gormley.

Debacle is the word most often used to describe the setting up of Irish Water. I always took the view that the need for water charges was self evident, but I could never see the justification for the establishment of yet another quango. Fine Gael and Labour, who pledged in their respective election manifestos to rid the country of red tape and bureaucracy, have succeeded in giving us probably the most egregious humdinger of a quango since Fás. Talk of bonuses and over staffing have annoyed people. But that annoyance will quickly turn to anger when flat-rate charges are introduced, a move which will be completely at odds with the polluter-pays principle.

I’ve argued previously in this column that the project was ill-conceived from the start, its primary objective being the eventual privatisation of water services. But it would appear that Fine Gael and Labour could well be thwarted in this ambition. So who will stop the liberalisation gallop of the government? It won’t be Labour backbenchers, or the unions, or protests, or even poor local election results. It will come from the unexpected quarter of the European Union. Or more precisely a provision of the Lisbon Treaty, which was dismissed by opponents of the Treaty at the time of the referendum. Ironically, many of those who opposed Lisbon did so because of fears of further market liberalisation.

Article 11 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) has given EU citizens power to call on the Commission to propose legislation. A petition of one million EU citizens from at least seven different member states is required to set the process in motion.

On 17 February the first ever European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI),’Water is a human right!’, will be the subject of a public hearing in the European Parliament. On the the same day the proposers will meet the European Commission. Their arguments and demands are very clear: they believe that water is a resource and a public good, not a commodity, and they invite the European Commission to propose legislation which would implement the human right to water and sanitation as recognised by the United Nations.
They have three main demands:

1. The EU institutions and Member States be obliged to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation.
2. Water supply and management of water resources not be subject to ‘internal market rules’ and water services be excluded from liberalisation.
3. The EU increase its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation.

In line with the regulation on ECIs they will be given the opportunity to explain their demands in both the EU Parliament and the Commission. The meeting with the Commission is a closed session but the hearing in the European Parliament is open to anyone who registers in advance. This is a test case. Would the unelected Commission dare to ignore the wishes of 1.65 million citizens? Any attempt to dilute (I won’t say water down) the proposals by the Commission would only play into the hands of those who believe there is a democratic deficit at the heart of the EU project. Nevertheless, it would be naive to underestimate the sizeable lobby in favour of the privatisation of water resources. There may be some within the European Union who sympathise with the US reluctance to join all other nations in a universal agreement on the definition of rights to water and sanitation as defined in a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), adopted by consensus in September 2013. Amnesty International was critical of the USA, stating: “At the time [of the unanimous adoption of the UNHRC resolution] the United States was the only country that disassociated itself from the definition of these rights and stated that it did not agree ‘with the expansive way this right has been articulated’. However, it has not explained what aspects of this definition it does not accept”. The press release continues: “Such rights are only ‘expansive’ if one adopts a 19th century understanding of hygiene and of government duties to ensure the provision of public services”.
It’s clear that the related issues of water and climate change will be defining issues of the twenty-first century. Regrettably, the last number of weeks have shown that we have a government that understands neither issue. Our only hope at this stage is that the European Union can come to our rescue.