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Column The European Commission is not recognising the human right to water

There have been countless examples of how little Commissioners care about ordinary people. Now they have snubbed a proposal which almost 1.9 million people have put their names to, writes Paul Murphy MEP.

THE GREAT ENGLISH socialist, Tony Benn, who sadly passed away last weekend, summed up his criticism of the European Union as “The commissioners in Brussels are not elected, we can’t remove them, they don’t have to listen to us.”

Over the last few years there have been countless examples of how true this is and how little these overpaid Commissioners care about ordinary people. However, it is not every day that they snub a proposal which almost 1.9 million people have put their name to and which is widely supported across Europe.

That is what they did on Wednesday with their official response to the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative. The Right2Water initiative called for the implementation of “the human right to water and sanitation in European law.” The Commission’s response is entirely inadequate. While it makes general points about the right to water and sanitation and recognises in words the importance of water as a public good, it does not make any proposal for legislation recognising the human right to water.


Crucially, the European Commission’s response is silent on the Right2Water’s demand for a legal commitment that there would be no EU initiatives to liberalise water services. Public opposition, reflected in huge support for the Right2Water initiative, was successful in stopping previous attempts to liberalise and privatise water services across Europe. However, the Commission’s communication makes no commitment to explicitly exclude these services from trade negotiations such as the on-going negotiations for an EU-US free trade agreement.

The organisers of the Right2Water initiative responded by saying that the commission “lacks ambition” to implement the policies they have been campaigning for. The problem in my opinion is that the Commission has a very different ambition to that of the Right2Water organisers.

Actions speak louder than words and the Commission’s actions have shown that they are fundamentally in agreement with Chairman of Nestle, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who has stated that “access to water is not a public right.” The Commission in fact has consciously driven the process of water privatisation across the EU.

In attempt after attempt, most recently with the so-called Concessions Directive, the question of water liberalisation has been put on the table by the Commission only to forced back by public opposition. In the so-called “neighbourhood” countries, ie those countries not in the EU but under the EU sphere of influence – they consciously promote water privatisation which, of course, is of interest to major European multinationals like Veolia.

The Troika factor

Most importantly, with the Troika memoranda, they have attempted to impose diktats for water privatisation. In Greece, mass privatisation of public sector bodies has been imposed, including the full privatisation of the water services of Athens and Thessaloniki. Likewise in Portugal, much of the public sector is being privatised, including part of the water service, Aguas de Portugal. Even in Italy, which not under a Troika programme, the European Commission and the European Central Bank asked the Italian government to plan for water privatisation and liberalisation even after a national referendum voted overwhelmingly against it.

In Ireland, the Troika programme first agreed with Fianna Fail and the Greens contained plans for the introduction of water charges. Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin even had to ask permission of the Troika in order to delay the introduction of the charge till after the European and local elections. Water charges are the means by which water will be turned into a commodity in Ireland and they will lead inexorably to privatisation if the government has its way.

The results of privatisation are clear from looking across the water to Britain: prices that have increased by over 40 per cent while operating costs have remained static; private water companies that are less efficient than the public companies they replaced; and fraud and cutting of corners that have resulted in fines for breaching of environmental regulations.

Tony Benn’s realism about the undemocratic nature of the European Union didn’t for one moment make him pessimistic about the ability of working people to change things. He was confident that people mobilising in communities and on the streets could defeat unpopular government measures and that is what we are seeing across Europe now.

Taking the power back

As a result, in 2010, Paris took its water supply back into public ownership after 25 years of being run by Suez and Velia. Other cities in France are following its lead, and the same process is being followed in Germany, in Hungary and in Italy. These people have experienced the reality of water privatisation and have now struggled against it. This citizens’ initiative, along with recent municipal referendums across Europe, have shown that when people are given a choice they will strongly oppose the privatisation of their water service.

We have an opportunity in Ireland to stop the privatisation process in its tracks by not allowing them to make water a commodity through water charges. A mass campaign of non-payment is both possible and necessary to defeat the water charges as they were defeated in the 1990s in Ireland. The local and European elections in May are a good opportunity to punish the establishment parties who are all in favour of this tax and elect people who will use their positions as a platform to organise a mass boycott campaign.

This Saturday is World Water Day, which will be marked by protests and meetings against water privatisation across Europe. In Dublin I will hosting, together with the Anti-Austerity Alliance a conference on “Fighting the Water Tax and Austerity” in the Ashling Hotel at 2pm. Speakers across Europe, such as an activist in Greece will be speaking about this Europe-wide struggle against water privatisation, as well as discussing how we can build a strong campaign to defeat the water tax and privatisation here.

Paul Murphy is the Socialist Party MEP for Dublin.

Read: Water meters installed in Castlerea despite four years of boil water notices

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