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Is Ireland set to go to war with the European Commission over water charges?

The Commission today issued a statement apparently saying that Ireland is no longer exempt from water charges.

1/11/2013 Water Meters Installations Protests Source: Laura Hutton/Rollingnews.ie

A STORM IS brewing between the European Commission (EC) and Ireland over water charges.

In response to a European parliamentary question from Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan, the EC replied that Ireland no longer enjoys an exemption from EU obligations for a system of water charges.

However, both Boylan and Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen have today rejected that response.

The EC’s written response to Boylan says that Ireland’s ‘de facto exemption’ from water charges no longer applies as the government of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party introduced water charges and metering in 2010.

The response reads: “If the established practice is to have a system in place implementing the recovery of the costs of water services, in accordance with the polluter pays principle, the Commission considers that the flexibility afforded to Member States… would not apply.”

29/3/2016. Sinn Fein Anti Water Charges Campaigns Lynn Boylan Source: Sam Boal

That confirmation would seem to tie the government’s hands regarding the scrapping of the controversial charges and Irish Water itself.

At the implementation of the EU’s Water Framework Directive in 2000, which was designed to improve the quality of water across the Union, Ireland was the sole member country which did not introduce water charges.

It was given an exemption of sorts from introducing such charges provided it could provide evidence that the directive would eventually be obeyed here.

Boylan, who is more than a little piqued that her question to the Commission was leaked (see below), denies this is the case, telling RTÉ’s DriveTime that no one in Ireland would accept that Irish Water is an established practice here.

Boylan insisted that “if a system was in place for the recovery of the costs of water charges then the exemption would not apply”.

“This is not the case,” she said.

For a start Irish Water itself is not in compliance with the directive. It’s not employing full cost recovery, it’s just covering the cost of its bills, so it’s nonsensical to interpret from the response that the Commission gave out this morning.
The established practice in Ireland is to pay for water through taxation, not Irish Water.

Cowen, Fianna Fáil spokesman on housing and the environment, meanwhile told the same programme that his party will “refute and contradict” the EC’s response.

“The same Commission replied to Alan Kelly of all people in 2010 by referencing the established practice to the date the current framework was implemented, which was 2003,” he said.

25/4/2016 General Election Talks Barry Cowen Source: RollingNews.ie

Anyone who believes the current regime, which failed the Eurostat test, is the established practice really needs to check this out.

Assuming the EC applies the letter of the law, it could in theory impose daily fines on Ireland for non-compliance with the water directive.

If it were confirmed that Ireland isn’t in fact exempt from applying water charges it could deal a significant blow to the setting up of an expert committee to review Irish Water and the charges system, a key component of the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement which saw Fianna Fáil electing to support a Fine Gael-led minority government.

Should that happen, the new government would probably be on very shaky ground indeed.

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