Right2Water: Commission ignoring citizens' wishes

Written by Lynn Boylan on 24 March 2016 in Opinion

The Commission must be held to account for its lack of response to the Right2Water campaign and must do more to ensure the human right to water, says Lynn Boylan.

In the aftermath of the economic crisis, a schism became apparent between the public and the EU institutions. As a result, the European citizens' initiative (ECI) was set up under the Lisbon treaty, designed to re-engage citizens with the EU's decision-making process.

In theory, if an ECI petition gains support from over one million citizens in at least a quarter of the 28 EU member states, the European Commission has to act. Unfortunately, just five short years after its inception, the ECI concept as a form of direct democracy for the EU already looks to be stillborn; a failed attempt at bridging the gap between citizens on the street and the bureaucrats in Brussels.

The Commission's response to the first successful ECI, Right2Water, has ultimately been utterly disappointing and disillusioning for those who earnestly engaged with it. One of the key demands of the ECI organisers and supporters was for the Commission to not promote the privatisation or liberalisation of water services. The Commission's weak response was indicative of its whole attitude to the Right2Water campaign.


Claiming to take a neutral position on member states' decision on water privatisation, while actively participating in the Troika's push to privatise the bailout countries, is disingenuous to say the least.

This is not to mention the fact that the Commission had originally showed its bias by including water and sanitation services in the concessions directive.

It was therefore essential that MEPs held the Commission to account in the follow-up report for their vague response, which ignored what the citizens had demanded.

However, since the report was passed in September last year, the college has stalled and we have yet to hear what it has planned for the future in terms of water and sanitation, or if it plans to finally answer those citizens who signed the ECI.

One of the difficulties the Commission faces with reconciling itself with citizens' wishes is that both parties are coming from completely different starting points. I believe that the provision of water services is naturally monopolistic.

Water, as a public good, should never be commodified, as is written in the report. Profits should not be made on water provision, and all revenues should be reinvested into improving infrastructure of water services, instead of going to shareholders or executive pay.

I hope that the Parliament's support of a report that calls for the exclusion of water and sanitation services from the internal market, trade deals such as TTIP and the concessions directive will make the Commission realise the strong will against its ideology on water and sanitation.

In spite of fierce opposition from right-wing groups and private water lobbyists, the more progressive groups within the Parliament managed to maintain a call for the European Commission to enshrine universal access and the human right to water in legislation.

The recognition of this right in EU law was the primary objective of the Right2Water campaign. As long as this human right is ignored by governments and the Commission, water will continue to be a highly sensitive issue for citizens both within Europe and beyond.

In any discussion on water services, we must remind ourselves of the basic fact that private companies operate for profit. Without it, they're kaput. Privatisation of public services such as railways, bus networks and postal services has demonstrated that inefficiency and poor performance are the price to pay for a bigger profit margin for the companies involved.

This focus on short-term profit at the expense of long-term sustainability is especially troubling when it involves water and sanitation services, which are unique and exceptional public goods.

As the UN has stated when it recognised the human right to water, "The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights."

Trying to reconcile the human right to water - defined by the UN as; safe, affordable, sufficient, acceptable and physically accessible - with the pursuit of shareholder profit by private companies, has proven incompatible.

The commodification of water has created inequalities, with the poorest members of society the most affected. It has frequently led to water cut-offs, steep hikes in water rates and non-transparent management of the resource.

From Germany to Greece, Ireland to Italy, citizens' movements have mobilised on an incredible scale in reaction to the prospect of water privatisation, or because of existing failures where it has already been in place.

Paris and Berlin are two of the most well-known examples of increasingly common phenomenon of 'remunicipalisation', where local municipalities have taken their water and sanitation services back into public hands.

Citizens are saying no to the private model after years of under-investment in water infrastructure while outrageous profits for shareholders miraculously rocketed.

As regards EU action, ongoing evaluation of the drinking water directive is to be welcomed. However, this focuses on water quality. Therefore the Commission needs to engage in further action to support member states on issues of accessibility, affordability and availability - key concerns of the Right2Water campaign.

Given the silence from the Commission since the report was passed six months ago, I will be hosting a high-level conference on 28 June, where we hope to bring together MEPs, Commission representatives and members of civil society to put the human right to water back on the agenda. It is crucial that the voices of nearly two million citizens are not ignored.


About the author

Lynn Boylan (GUE/NGL, IE) is Parliament's rapporteur on the follow-up to the European citizens' initiative Right2Water

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