The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), a novelty brought by the Lisbon Treaty, allows the citizens to call on the European Commission to present legislation. The initiative must relate to a subject on which the Union has competence to legislate. To be valid, the initiative has to bear at least one million signatures from minimum seven Member States. Within three months after receiving the initiative, the organisers have the opportunity to present their initiative at a public hearing in the European Parliament. Following the hearing, the Commission will adopt a formal response detailing what action it will propose, if any. The Commission is not obliged to propose legislation as a result of an initiative; if it decides to do so, the usual legislative procedures apply.
The “Right2Water” initiative calls on the Commission to propose legislation implementing the human right to water and sanitation as recognised by the United Nations, and promoting the provision of water and sanitation as essential public services for all. In particular, the initiative urges the EU institutions and Member States to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation; water supply and management of water resources not be subject to ‘internal market rules’ and for water services to be excluded from liberalisation; finally, it calls on the EU to increase its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation. The initiative is backed by more than one and a half million signatures from 27 Member States.
Welcome and opening by Matthias Groote,
Matthias Groote (S&D, DE), Chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, welcomed those behind this ECI, especially Anne-Marie Perret, President of the Citizens’ Committee. He noted that it was quite an achievement to get 1.9 million signatures in a relatively short time. He welcomed Commissioner Šefčovič, who had made it clear at his original hearing before the European Parliament that the ECI should be as uncomplicated as possible and should be available online, as was also discuss in the European Parliament CONT committee. This meeting was organised to discuss this initiative and he was glad of the large number of people in attendance. The lead committee is ENVI, but MEPs from IMCO, DEVE and PETI were also present. He noted that 1.2 million signatures came from his own country (Germany) alone and said that he had never known an issue like this to be discussed in regional parliaments in such a cross party manner. It is a milestone for direct democracy in Europe.
Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration, said that the view from where he sat was very impressive. He had spent the morning with the organising committee and noted that two years after the ECI was launched, this was the first that met all the requirements. With their presence, citizens have proven that this instrument works, people are interested in the EU and want a direct input in what should be on the agenda. He was very happy to have this debate. Since April 1 2012, 22 ECIs have been registered. He had been working hard with MEP Häfner to get the initiative together, with the initial concern that it would be abused. However, the citizens came up with proposals on the environment, education, citizens’ rights and communication. This is the first to meet all the criteria, but at least 2 more have claimed to have made it. Nevertheless, he congratulated the organisers, who had managed to get citizens mobilised and to get a reach from the representatives in the European Parliament.
He had discussed the hurdles with the organisers. He had prepared for these with the MEPs, was conscious of some and surprised by others (such as the online collection system and the issue of data protection). Lessons had been learned for future revisions of the treaty.
He assured all that the Commission would pay its utmost attention to this ECI, would reflect upon it and come up with the best possible answer by March 20 2014.
Gerald Häfner (Greens/EFA, DE), representing the Committee on Petitions, where he was draftsperson for the opinion for the CONT committee on the European Citizens’ Initiative, said that the European Parliament was switching roles for the day. It was now in listening mode rather than talking mode, in order to listen to citizens who want to make proposals. This is a monumental step forward towards a Europe of citizens, from a Europe of governments. He congratulated the organisers, on whom 1.9 million people had pinned their hopes and expectations. Clearly water is a crucial issue for all humanity, for without water there can be no life, it should not be privatised but remain in the public hand. He wanted to hear the views and positions of the people. He hoped that the hearing would be able to deliver on all expectations of the Right2Water ECI and the citizens in general.
Anne-Marie Perret, President of the Citizens' Committee, presented the initiative. She felt that they were quite right to raise the issue of the right to access to drinking water and sanitation as a basic right for the first ECI. This ECI had started out with the EPSU, but it was not alone in the struggle, with involvement from EAPN, EEB, EPHA, ETUC, WECF, Social Platform, APE and PSI. They were all aware of the provisions, but had managed to collect 1.9 million signatures, with 1 million collected in just 8 months. Relative to the number of citizens in the EU, this was not a huge amount but it was still no easy business. Strength comes in unity, so all allies were needed. When launching an ECI, she said, it is good to have a specific goal in mind with a view to the preparation of legislation. With an increase in inequalities across the EU in this sector, she felt there was a need to outline their position.
The goal of this ECI is to ensure binding legal measures are adopted for the right to drinking water and sanitation. Within the European Trade Union Federation and the NGOs involved, the issue of recognising water as a human right has been at the heart of the debate. It is not a commercial product but a heritage and a right. The public authorities still bear responsibility for their actions. She recalled that the provision of water supplies is vital to everyone and it is important for authorities to monitor services and guarantees. The continuation of the crisis is making it harder to cover all services. The supply and management of water services should be subject rules and not liberalised. The EU and Member States must work together to ensure that all inhabitants should the right to water of drinkable quality. Water supply and sanitation is an integrated cycle, which existed before the EU did. It is essential for services to be delivered close the citizens. Her last point was on the global context, the fundamental right to access is at the edge of the recognition of water as a global good. The ECI seeks to ensure universal access to water and sanitation, with non-profit making principles and public authorities that strengthen the capacity.
Round 1: "Guaranteed water and sanitation for all in the EU"
Q&A session with MEPs and the ECI Committee
Richard Seeber (EPP, AT) said that as President of the European Parliament Water Intergroup, he was able to look at this issue from a lot of perspectives, both economic, social and water quality. He reflected on the fact that this anchoring of water as a human right goes back to the UN resolution in the UN charter, as well as the protocols in the Lisbon Treaty, which set out the need for water to be accessible and affordable, with genuine economic and social interest. It was already mentioned that this is an area where Member States are free to organise everything as they wish. With regard to liberalisation and privatisation, he said that every citizen should have affordable access to high quality drinking water but this should still be left to the Member States. He comes from a country where water provision is left to the government and said that they should stick to the treaties in this respect.
Jo Leinen (S&D, DE) agreed that this was a very important topic for the first example of the ECI. A lot of people ask where the European Movement is, but this is surely an example of it from the ground up. People should have the feeling that they can have an influence and can get involved. Those living in cross-border regions have the most problems.
Chris Davies (ALDE, UK) noted that water and sewage systems in the UK were privatised 20 years ago. They were very well provided for under the public sector but found it hard to get investment. Nowadays, the privatised system is strictly controlled by a public regulator, which forces companies to make investments, insists on quality standards and protects those whose supplies might be cut off. It may be a right, but it is an expensive right. They need to ensure that water provision is provided as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Bas Eickhout (Greens/EFA, NL) said that he could celebrate this moment of European democracy but want to know what the Commission is going to actually do about it. The reply of the Commissioner is disappointing, he was hoping for a more content-based answer. He pointed out the issue of shale gas, which will have a huge impact on water, noting that something would have to be done about this. He also noted that the Commission’s official position was apparently not privatisation but in the progress report of the Troika, the Commission made it clear that it would push for privatisation in Portugal. They need to start taking more action with more emphasis on policy than just celebration.
Alda Sousa (GUE/NGL, PT) said that water cannot be privatised but has to be kept in the public sector. Privatisation is no guarantee. She reminded the room that the Commission and IMF are intervening in the Member States with austerity policies, putting citizens into situations where they cannot afford water. In Greece, water was cut off to 24,000 households due to unpaid bills. It was not enough to celebrate this right when policies are also removing the right to water. Otherwise there are going to be no positive actions in practice.
Anne-Marie Perret agreed that the fundamental right to water is not just fine words but has to apply in practice. In the meeting with the Commissioner, she hoped to get a different view on how Commission legislation is passed. It is going in the right direction but does not fully satisfy. Water is a fundamental right, it is one that has to be signed in through legislation, bringing together all existing issues.
Anneli Nordstrom (KOMMUNAL, SE) said that access to fresh water is under threat even in countries perceived as prosperous (e.g. Sweden). Today, many parts of the network cannot be dealt with because of flooding. This is something that everyone has to get used to, due to climate change. Water companies had failed to invest in new networks with proper facilities. The threat is greater than it appears in the media. To have a sustainable water/sewage system, proper investment is needed. They talk about crisis and unemployment in the EU, but this could also be used to describe public investment in water grids.
Jan-Willem Goudriaan (EPSU, BE) said that the ECI is concerned with the developments of the Troika in relation to privatisation. The Commission has to do an evaluation on how privatisation will impact on the human right to water. Some say that it is the responsibility of the Member States to decide on privatisation, but others feel that it is clear that there is pressure from the institutions to do this (e.g. in Greece). The ECI seeks to have recognition of the human right to water, with implied concrete discussion. It is quite important to introduce this right in EU legislation and to change the thinking on this. He wanted the Commission to commit to the fact that water and sanitation services should be universal. People do not want competition in water and sewage, but would rather see it as a public service. This should not be a controversial issue.
Françoise Grossetête (EPP, FR) welcomed this innovation from the Lisbon treaty and said that access to water affects a whole range of human rights, including the right to life, health and dignity. Questions arise, based on the ideology that war or rivalry with the private sector results in avoiding the issue of genuine access to water for all. High standards for water development should not get mixed up with management decisions. There should be affordable access to water for every citizen. If they are going to implement water services for everyone, this should not force the decision of whether it is going to be under a public or private operator. Private operators have also signed up to the MDGs and recognise the right to water as a human right. 33% of European benefit from it as a private resource. However, 25 million EU citizens do not have access to good water and sanitation at all. She wanted to see proper figures on this issue.
Peter Jahr (EPP, DE) felt that citizens have the right to have an influence. After being involved in politics for some time, he wanted everyone to listen and ask questions. He comes from a region where everything was part of the public sector, but did not necessarily believe that this was the right recipe. Everyone agrees with the right to water and how to make it effective, but when they talk about the ban on liberalisation, he asked if that also meant a ban on privatisation. It could also mean the right to have concession to a semi-private body. There are lots of different models in his own country, but he could not see the difference between prices and quality of provisions.
Marino Baldini (S&D, HR) said that the first declaration he signed as MEP was against the privatisation of water services. 80% of Croatian citizens have access to public services in water. He said that water is necessary for life; it is a precious resource, but that 4 out of every 10 people in the world have no access to proper sanitation. Currently many parts of Europe suffer from floods, due to bad management of resources. They need to ask for better management, including for MDGs.
Dubravka Šuica (EPP, HR) said that good actions have to take place if water is to have the same role in the 21st century as petrol had in the 20th century. Croatia is the 3rd country in Europe to have a special status in water services (after Norway and Iceland). She knew that water cannot become a private property, because subsidiarity has to be taken into account. She has asked for the solidarity fund to be used for flooding in Croatia and asked the Commission to act swiftly.
Jaroslav Paška (EFD, SK) noted that anarchy has been seen in some countries. Water management in his homeland is held by the state, which was forced to open the liberalisation process when it was joining the EU. Prices have since escalated and are now 10 times higher than they used to be. Those that had their own sewage system are getting disconnected. He said that private investors should not enjoy a freehold with everything at their discretion.
Agnès Le Brun (EPP, FR) said that with water purification, they need to work on cost. This is passed on to the consumer, with the problem being the weak hand of the public authorities. She was against 100% out and out privatisation, but noted that the contract is awarded in a way that allows public authorities to give private contractors the upper hand. There are so many different standards, she said, with treatment of different expenses in different regions.
Didier Dumont (CGT, FR), an expert on water purification, said that Europe had fallen behind on water treatment and infrastructures. They are expensive nowadays, so that private companies can come along and propose treatment plants. In terms of public cooperation, there are services with experience in water treatment that could provide assistance. Cooperation does not happen at EU level, but within its Member States and regions, and is therefore difficult to organise. They need a set of priorities to maintain an infrastructure in disrepair.
A German representative said that some local authorities have private shareholders and these companies manage to keep fees and charges fairly low. If one looks at what lies behind this, in these companies there are household tariffs that are significantly lower than those of water services run by local authorities. This equates to low charges and shareholder values. This should be examined further.
Jan-Willem Goudriaan (EPSU, BE) said that his interpretation of the cross-party agreement is clear so far, because the message for the Commission is to get on with it. On the issue of liberalisation, he said that the demand of the ECI was to ask the Commission to avoid the liberalisation of water and sanitation services, not just in the EU but as part of trade agreements with third countries. There is a lot of confusion and concern about privatisation, but the human right framework is in place to judge such circumstances.
Pedro Arrojo Agudo (University of Zaragoza, ES) raised the question of whether an ideological issue is at stake. He felt that there was more to it than ideology, pointing to the situation in Spain where thousands of families had their water cut off 3 days before. This is seen as a question of principles rather than ideology. Setting aside the freedom of public authorities, he noted that citizens have not been consulted by local, national or EU authorities. He wondered if the EU was afraid to ask their opinion.
Marianne Wenning, Director, Quality of Life, Water & Air, DG Environment, European Commission, was present to give some answers on the environmental aspect of the whole initiative. Water is an important life source but also essential for the economy. Environmental policy has expanded over the last few decades, especially in terms of waste and water legislation. She had to admit that there had been some differentiation in compliance rates on drinking water quality standards across the EU Member States. It was necessary to improve implementation, but a significant catch-up had been noted in the newer Member States. For example, since 2007, more than 2.6 million people had been supplied with improved drinking water. Between 2007 and 2013, EU financial support for investment had reached around €22 billion. Older Member States have also achieved high compliance rates. In the fitness check on the Water Blueprint, the carrot and stick approach had proven successful.
There is no question that further steps have to be taken for more improvements, as set down in the Blueprint and the 7th Environment Action Plan. She said that more attention should be made to high quality drinking water for small suppliers in rural areas, as well as ensuring the maintenance of existing infrastructure across the EU. It should be possible to not only have clean water, but to have water for use in a resource efficient way. In the Water Framework Directive, there is a provision that recovery should be part of water management. A number of actions are ahead on improving information to consumers, transparency of services and data management. Small water suppliers have come forward with a framework for action on implementation programmes for water quality. The Commission will continue to keep EU legislation on water under review, she said, reminding the room that legislation on priority substances had been updated and that legislation on groundwater is being updated. She noted that feedback from the ECI showed that there must be better involvement of the public and foresaw active participation in EU environment legislation. EU water policies have allowed access for a large majority of EU consultation and the Commission would continue to be in consultation with Member States and other stakeholders to assure access to clean water and sanitation.
Anneli Nordstrom (KOMMUNAL, SE) agreed that this was a major challenge in many places. She thought that there was almost too much certainty that they had already achieved everything, but that there should be consistent efforts to ensure the protection of water that is under threat. She called on the Commission to be more engaged with these challenges and to remember that people’s access to water is under threat.
Round 2: "Global access to water and sanitation for all"
Pedro Arrojo, (University of Zaragoza, ES), member of the Citizens' Committee, said that we are living through a dramatic paradox, with a global water crisis on a planet made up of water. This is due to three major faults: unsustainability, poverty and inequality, and a lack of democracy, whereby privatisation is making citizens into simple customers.
The EU, with the Water Framework Directive, addresses the first fault, but no-one can deliver on social values and issues of employment and sanitation have been avoided. Soul has been removed from legislation, allowing each Member State to fill in the vacuum as it sees fit. He said that ethical consistency should be a human right and that an ethical socio-political debate is needed, to allow the EU to resume a leadership. He said that these values roam further than the ability of the market to produce them and there is a clear way to contribute to the commercial way of thinking. Access to water and sanitation should be recognised as a basic right of the EU, in addition to regulating the management of social values while guaranteeing the primacy of water as a human right. The general interest of society today is in the central pillar of managing water systems. By working out future legal frameworks, they could overcome the problem of obsolete water principles.
Q&A session with MEPs and the ECI Committee
Michèle Striffler (EPP, FR) spoke on behalf of the DEVE committee. She said that the right to water and sanitation is recognised in the UN texts and in target 7 of the MDGs. The latest progress report said that this should be achieved by 2010, but there was still a lot to be done. 2.5 billion people do not have proper access to sanitation, especially those in areas where populations are growing rapidly. The EU is one of the major donors for improving water supplies. Nevertheless droughts and flooding can lead to the movement of populations. There is increasing competition for this valuable resource and she said that guaranteeing access to water can be a tool for preventing conflict. Policies need to be properly defined and planned, taking into account the water situation in developing countries. She mentioned that the use of scarce farmland to grow food for biofuels is not encouraged. Climate change is also a major factor in taking this basic right away. There should be a focus on avoiding overuse. At the Rio+20 conference, the EU declared a pledge to make access to water a human right in every country. They should dedicate themselves to that and make it a reality throughout the world.
Fiona Hall (ALDE, UK) said that the sanitation aspect of the MDGs has gone off track. The world’s poorest people have not gained anything. In 2013, 1.1 billion people still did not have an alternative to defecating in the open air, which is the largest aspect of the lack of sanitation. The situation of human waste going into the ground means that surface water goes untreated. Sanitation facilities and waste management techniques are needed, to ensure that post-2015 MDG framework considers sanitation adequately. She wanted to know what the Commission would do to take action.
Nikos Chrysogelos (Greens/EFA, EL) said that water should be a global right for all, but the question remains on how to apply it in practice. This should not automatically lead to policies of privatisation, although this appears to be something that the Commission is promoting. With regard to development aid, they have to ensure water and sanitation to the people who need it most and to ensure that water management is not simply based on profit.
Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (ALDE, NL) said that it was no surprise that water was at the centre of this ECI, but simply recognising its position as a human right was not enough. It is much more important to look at the conditions that are needed to achieve it. They can discuss liberalisation and privatisation of water services, but also need to look at impact on nature and biodiversity. The EU sets a good example of strong nature legislation, but the Member States do not always have it at the top of their list of priorities. In the fight for water as a human right, it is also important to fight for nature.
Inés Ayala Sender (S&D, ES) said that now, only a few months to the European elections, it was vital to recognise citizens’ right to water and sanitation. In this house, they had managed to press some other points (such as the need to find resources), but they have to continue to keep an eye on countries where the MDGs have not been fulfilled. She hoped that the Commissioner would put more detail into its proposals, not just in the EU but in countries where water is proving to play a part in conflict and warfare.
Antigoni Papadopoulou (S&D, CY) said that in the period of a lot of goods and services being privatised, she wondered if water was now something to be profited from rather than a human right.
Gerald Häfner (Greens/EFA, DE) said that a new form of dialogue was possible through the ECI, bringing about an important debate on long-term objectives. 1.9 million people have stated that they are against liberalisation, especially those in countries where it is already in place. He asked how the Commission can ensure that policies the EU wants are respected by the Troika.
Rosa Pavanelli (FP CGIL, IT) emphasised that when they assert the right to water as a human right, they need to guarantee the ways and means of delivering that. This means that they would have to move away from the idea that water is a commercial product that can be traded in. The profit margin of the private sector is cut down, so that they can now see what is going on in a large number of countries with a range of effects on companies. In the ECI committee, the main stance was that the EU must be clearly guided by water as a human right, but they wanted measures and criteria. It would be desirable to see the EU excluding water from privatisation purposes, for social benefits, lower costs for health and so that the public would also be better placed to defend the environment and ensure more recycling.
This is an emergency, not just in Europe but elsewhere in the world. It is worth the EU’s while in developing development policies, where they can take account of aspect guaranteeing access to water, protecting the resource and preventing it from becoming privatised. They should also ensure that water is available to lower income citizens as well. Developing policies among European public sector firms would be helpful in the economic approach to development in 3rd countries. The crisis has shown that the development model cannot be left subject to a paradigm, it should be an opportunity to restore the EU’s image in development rights in the wider world.
Pedro Arrojo Agudo (University of Zaragoza, ES) agreed that it would not be possible to deliver on the right to water if the quality of the cycle was not also recovered. Poor people need clean rivers. He emphasised that toxic products and practices lead to poisoning and this is not estimated properly.
Klaus Rudischhauser, Deputy Director-General, DG Development and Cooperation, European Commission, said that access to water and sanitation is the central point of the EU’s development, consisting of 60% of cooperation aid. The EU is on the front line, representing taxpayers’ money and interests. On the question of rights, he said that development policies are based on UN resolutions and charters, but they have to target money in the areas it is needed. It is essential to have responsible resource management. The EU should have a common policy, with the Member States and other organisations to share the burden. This is very important for EU diplomacy and should be taken very seriously.
Rosa Pavanelli (FP CGIL, IT) was glad that they had taken stock of the extent to which water is vital, making links with energy and food security policy, as well as asserting water as a human right. With that in mind, it is important to emphasise that recognising access to water as a human right should not be excluded it from FTAs and cooperation agreements. Everything flows from the stance of the Commission.
Round 3: "No liberalisation of water services"
Erhard Ott (ver.di, DE), member of the Citizens' Committee, said that water is a limited natural resource and public good. Access is a precondition for many other rights, including health, education and life. It is not just a product, it is important to think about who deals with these goods. Implementation of human rights is a task of the state, which covers the right to water. Water management must be close to citizens, so local authorities have a special role to play.
He said that water and resources should be declared a public good and not made subject to the rules of the single market. This was covered by a European Parliament resolution 10 years ago, stating that everyone should have access and that it should be crystal clear in EU legislation. He welcomed the fact that water was excluded from the concessions directive, this was a step in the right direction to taking it out of the rules of the single market. He still had considerable misgivings, especially on water and basic services being included in the trade negotiations with the US. This applies for partner countries and the EU, he noted, pointing out that investor state settlements are a danger to municipal authorities. This would mean that water and sanitation could be managed according to market principles. There are ways of benchmarking for water management for the improvement of quality and security of supply. He was in favour of accepting the basic need that others can profit from, making profits on the basis of democratic scrutiny. These profits must be made public.
Q&A session with MEPs
Constance Le Grip (EPP, FR) said that the issue of access to water is not a question of ideologies, but of rights, activity and effectiveness. She said that there was confusion between water and water-related services. Water is a right, so why should it be included in the goods of the single market. They need to think of the benefits to citizens, in terms of financing and investment.
Evelyne Gebhardt (S&D, DE) agreed that they were right to address this topic, which should be considered as a public good, it was not a question of profit but of access. She asked what the Commission’s view on this was and how they should respond. How could they ensure that there is no backdoor route to trade agreements?
Heide Rühle (Greens/EFA, DE) had never thought that water would be removed from services/concession legislation. She was very glad to keep it out. The Commission had only achieved this through compromise, but it would have to be review and analysed in 2-3 years. She asked the ECI committee what they wanted to achieve and what would have to be assessed.
Cornelis de Jong (GUE/NGL, NL) agreed with MEP Rühle that commitment was needed from the Commission that this would not change in the long term. He asked how it can be so uneven-handed. In the Netherlands, foreign water companies are forced to operate as commercial undertakings. To MEP Gebhardt, he noted that the issue of water and trade agreements would come under pressure in the TTIP.
Erhard Ott said that the concessions directive was not the focal point and target of the ECI. They were very happy that water had been removed, but could see that attempts would be made to remove the review clause and get it in through the backdoor. Therefore, the organisers of the initiative are saying that they are trying to guarantee that no further opening or liberalisation would take place in the future. It is an issue of how the EU is perceived.
Jan-Willem Goudriaan (EPSU, BE) wanted the commitment of the EU to be not to liberalise water services at all. This has nothing to do with what happens at local level. He thanked the rapporteur on the UN MDGs (MEP Striffler) for being very clear on the framework.
Sophie Auconie (EPP, FR) said that the EU was trying hard to find new financing mechanisms, but concentration on the idea of the liberalisation of services. Local authorities need to be careful in controlling this. Even if private operators carry out the provision of a service, it would be a shame to criticise the intentions of companies working in this sector. They needed to hear from these companies, who contribute to the economic development of the EU and are trying to do things that public bodies find quite difficult, but are treated as a negative factor.
Kriton Arsenis (S&D, EL) said that water privatisation is socially harmful and should be illegal. He noted that when it was introduced in the UK under Thatcher, there were 3 times more citizens without access to water because they could not pay their bills. Meanwhile in Bolivia, there are companies taxing for collection of rainwater. The Greek Council of State cancelled the plans for privatisation but the government has still allowed it to go ahead. He asked the Commission to highlight that these policies are no longer welcome, if it is to show any respect to the citizens who have signed the ECI.
Corinne Lepage (ALDE, FR) said that there was a lot of overlap on this issue, the resolution shows that the Commission is opposed to this viewpoint and wants to work towards privatisation. It is not possible to live in the best of both worlds.
Martin Kastler (EPP, DE) said that in his region of northern Bavaria, water services are in the hands of good quality water authorities. There is a question of transparency and competition, because there is always an argument that the big companies have an interest in the scale of the market. When focusing on local authorities, it is important to make exception for the water market. He noted that in the debate on TTIP, this should be a decisive issue.
Nessa Childers (NI, IE) said that Ireland has a centralised water sector, where citizens could be left with higher bill prices and lower quality. These extortionate amounts are unjustified and wholly immoral. She said that control of access to water should be kept as a right for all citizens. The affordability of water bills is only good if everyone can afford them. Given these affordability issues, how can the EU ensure that it reaches the MDGs? She asked what is being done to involve users in the decision process on access to water.
Nikolaos Chountis (GUE/NGL, EL) wanted to see this response from citizens continued in other forms, including decisions taken by referendum. The Greek government is saying that privatisation is being imposed or enforced to sell networks. The question remains on if it would be right to say that water monopolies should be treated as a service. If this is the case, this should be accompanied by the concept of water as a public good, not a commodity.
Evelyne Gebhardt (S&D, DE) spoke on behalf of Pier Antonio Panzeri (S&D, IT), rapporteur on concessions, said that water supply had been removed from the concessions treaty and the Commission is very unhappy about that. She wondered if the whole issue would be set off again at the mid-term review (in 2-3 years’ time).
Cristina Gutiérrez-Cortines (EPP, ES) felt that a second ECI was needed on top of this one, focusing on transparency and honesty.
Erhard Ott was keen to have transparency and consistency, to outline where prices are coming from, how they are set, investment, modernisation and maintenance. There is a distinct lack of clarity on all of these issues, as well as how private sector operators operate, how they distribute their profits, and private minority shareholders. The state had basically said no to its part of the profits and this would not be an option in the future. He said that water facilities have ended up being shut down and there is a need to carefully consider the acts of water companies. Water is a natural monopoly and private sector companies are trying to get money out of it. They can use water rates as a way to carry out investments.
Tommaso Fattori (Italian Water Movement, IT) said that there is a difference between water and services but they cannot be separated completely. The essential aspect of the ECI is to bring a halt to the current push for liberalisation. He reiterated that the crucial element is the human right to water and sanitation. This needs to be introduced in legislation and the EU must have tools available to ensure that no citizen is exempt from access to water, in poorer regions in particular. This means that they need to change the very cornerstone of the system.
Jan-Willem Goudriaan (EPSU, BE) emphasised that they were looking for a commitment from the Commission not to liberalise European water and sanitation services.
Jonathan Faull, Director-General, DG Internal Market and Services, European Commission, said that Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, Michel Barnier, had made a statement last June, saying that the best solution was to remove water from the scope of the concessions directive. It was his duty to take into account the concerns of so many citizens. The Commission would continue to monitor the situation closely.
In terms of the review and concerns expressed during the meetings, he said that this was not a signal that these concerns would be replaced. They have to remember that the fundamental decision is on the organisation of the provision of water. It has to be local and the Commission/EU has no remit in the area. This is a matter for local democratic choices. The Commission will look at the situation and make a report to the European Parliament and Council on the follow-up. He could not say what the Commission would do or say in 5 years’ time, but guessed that it would take account of the movement of this initiative. It would also look at how the concessions directive has worked and would report on it.
With regard to the point on liberalisation and if the Commission had plans, he said that this depended on the precise definition. Liberalisation is not the same as privatisation. Whether the Member States decide that water should be privatised or kept in public hands is a matter for them. The internal market in the EU includes rules on transparency and discrimination. Initial decisions on liberalisation were not taken for European democracy, but to deal with consequences of locally made decisions. To remove any possible remaining misunderstanding, he said that the Commission has no intention to take any further steps on liberalisations. He would continue to watch carefully what happens and react if necessary when reviewing the concessions directive.
Erhard Ott did not know what would happen in 5 years’ time either, but reiterated that water and supply is a basic right. The ongoing discussion on liberalisation for water is something that has been ongoing for 20 years, which crops up times and again. It is time to settle the matter, something that candidates will be quizzed on in their campaign.
An Le Nouail-Marlière, Rapporteur on Water challenges in the Euro-Mediterranean, European Economic and Social Committee, asked the Commission to work on the legislation on access to water and sanitation as a human right. This is an economic and social issue which is applicable to everyone. She supported this initiative, as it is important to recognise the distinction between firms that are serving the citizens and those getting profit from supplying citizens. It seems that transparency must apply to research findings on partnerships with water. Nowadays, water is no longer natural and must be treated, as the list of contaminants becomes longer. It is important for the EU in terms of partnerships and trade policy.
Henk Kool, Rapporteur on Award of concession contracts, Committee of the Regions (CoR), was replaced by Michel Lebrun (CoR), who said that water is essential for life and that local and regional authorities play a role. A number of regions can be in charge of services related to water. He was strongly opposed to water services being connected to competition and internal markets, as they should not be subject to concessions. The EU should have clear policies on water charges in the interest of future generations.
Jan Willem Goudriaan, Vice-President of the Citizens' Committee, said that the ECI made a clear request for access to water and sanitation as a human right, as well as asking for it to become the central principle of external policy and trade policy of the EU. The supporters of the ECI strongly support the concept of water not being subject to internal market rules or liberalisation. It is not enough to say that liberalisation will not take place, a clear legislative initiative is needed to say that it will never be liberalised in the EU. This is a fairly simple and straightforward demand. Water is not a commodity, it is life, a public good, a natural monopoly and a scarce resource. The ECI is about recognising this. It is now up to the Commission to react, by demonstrating what the EU can really do to put peoples’ rights at centre stage. This would give them a real reason to celebrate.
Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič looked forward to presenting the Commission communication on March 20. It was important for him to learn all the details and to see what aspect of the ECI is most important for them. The Commission now has to fulfil its side of the bargain. The most relevant facts to him were:
- The call for further recognition for water as a human right and how to put it in practice
- The call for focus on development policy in the third world
- The call for an exchange of best practices to make it clear how these companies are performing
For the Commission, it is not an easy task to draft a proper communication, as all DGs will have to evaluate and assess how to deal with the ECI.
Focusing on some concrete issues, he said that water comes under services of general interest, as demonstrated in many previous negotiations. Commissioner de Gucht would be organising a further hearing on the investment clause. It is important in the negotiation to keep citizens informed about the ongoing process. On the issue of the Troika, this is a crisis management tool, whereby they are finally turning the corner towards a better situation. If it comes to shale gas, he drew attention to the recommendation on shale gas in the climate and energy package a few weeks ago. The process would be monitored very closely in clear coordination with the policy, with a revision of processes in a short period of time.
He noted that several speakers had made it clear that the EU is the global leader in environmental protection. They should be proud of this, given the most demanding standards, and thanks should be given to the work of the European Parliament and insistence of stakeholders. The Commission plans to maintain this position. He said that the ECI helps in the area of fighting to repatriate the powers of the citizens. In the pre-election period, this would be a very important issue for discussion.
Matthias Groote, Chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, thanked those behind the initiative. He said that the Commission and European Parliament have borne water in mind in relation to negotiations on free trade, as water is crucial for consumers. He asked the Commissioner to take this message back with him and would be personally reporting to the European Parliament President on the progress made. In the future, it would be good to get a member of the Council involved in this debate, which should be enshrined in the treaties. It was also essential for the European Parliament to keep a very close eye on what the Commission does to follow up on the ECI.