Citizens of Thessaloniki vote directly on water privatization – first referendum in Greece since 1974

May 17, 2014 News

After nearly 2 Million European Citizens supported the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) against the privatization of water and sanitation services – Right2Water – the European Commission (EC) has stated that it could not initiate legislation on the topic of privatization as it would “fall outside its competences”, see the EC Vice-President’s statement of Sefcovic.

At the same time the EC has been pursuing its austerity measures in the crisis-hit countries and has been imposing policies that lead to the privatization of public services – including water services – in Greece. This led the citizens of Thessaloniki – the second largest city of Greece – to vote directly on the subject of water privatization at the local level in a referendum to be held on May 18th 2014. Read the report by Carsten Berg, who is currently travelling in Greece in order to explore local and European citizens’ initiatives and democracy movements.

All Greek ECIs Relate to the European Crisis

So far all the ECIs stemming from Greece are related to the European financial and democratic crisis. The refused ECI “One Million Signatures for a Europe of Solidarity” aims to establish as European law the principle of a “state of necessity”, allowing a country to refuse to repay its national debt if its political, economic and social survival is threatened. The ongoing ECI “Do not Count Education Spending as Part of the Deficit! Education is an Investment!” was initiated to safeguard education funding in EU-imposed national austerity budgets but also to heal the worrisome divisions between citizens in northern and southern Europe.

The citizens of Thessaloniki have been particularly active in the ECI Right2Water as they are extremely concerned about a possible privatization of the Water and Sanitation Company. This is the strongest European citizens’ initiative in Greece. Thousands of Thessaloniki citizens contributed to the first ever successful ECI in history. And hundreds of Thessaloniki citizens participated in the public live stream of the Hearing of the Right2Water ECI which took place on February 17th, 2013 in the European Parliament.

But the EU continues to pursue its austerity policy which provides for Greece to receive a financial bail-out only if the country massively reduces public spending and makes money by selling public goods and services. As a result, public airports, harbours, military barracks, beaches, islands and finally also water and sanitation services are currently being displayed and sold via a website of the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, for the specifics on the Thessaloniki water services here.

Water is a rare and valuable resource specifically in Greece. The planned privatization of the Water and Sanitation Company in Thessaloniki (EYATH) is massively opposed by many groups in particular as the local public water company has never been in debt and has provided good water quality over the past years. At the same time various citizens’ groups refer to experiences in other European cities, where the water quality has gone down and the cost has gone up once their water services were sold to private multi-national corporations. As a result, in cities like Brussels, Berlin, Munich, and Paris, water is being restored to public ownership after decades of being managed by private companies.

In fact, water and democracy activists from the city of Berlin like Claus Kittsteiner who have also organized citizens’ votes in their countries against the privatization of water are currently present in Thessaloniki to advise the Greek initiatives on how to conduct the referendum successfully.

Different Models for Saving Water in Thessaloniki

The citizen group “Initiative 136” wants to bring Thessaloniki’s water company entirely into citizens’ hands and proposes a social management scheme through local-level cooperatives. If one divides the estimated price for the sale of the public water company by the number of water connections one comes to the symbolic figure of 136 EUR per household. The idea is that every household would buy one share. Those households who could not afford it would be paid from a micro-credit with low interest. Recent press articles report that the Bill Gates Foundation would be ready to pay out such sums.

Other large initiatives like “SOSte to Nero” (Save the Water) want to keep water entirely in public hands. This group is skeptical of the idea that citizens could buy the entire water company of Thessaloniki as this would be seen as a precedent for the other privatization projects on issues like railway infrastructure, harbours, beaches etc., and it is doubted if citizens would always be able to buy these out.

At the same time many admit that a classic public approach is also doubtful as the level of corruption and mismanagement in public administrations is high. Even though trust in the state administration is low in Greece many people maintain that water is currently safer in public hands.

This reveals a dilemma that many citizens report. On the one hand citizens don’t want to see their public goods being sold to private corporations. On the other hand trust in public management is also low due to corruption and earlier mismanagement. The referendum on water sharpens the focus and the debate on this subject.

This essential debate on the modalities of how exactly to protect water services from privatization will also continue after the vote. In the days and weeks before the referendum, however, all the initiatives promise to pull together against the privatization of water. The mayor of the city of Boutaris and the churches also support the holding of this referendum.

Rules for Direct Democracy in Greece remain undefined

Even though Greece decided to introduce new forms of direct democracy as long ago as 2006, the implementation laws have not been developed. As a result the direct democratic instruments (citizens’ initiatives and referendums) remain de facto inoperative. The Thessaloniki referendum is a self-organized and informal one launched and maintained by citizens groups with the support of the municipalities while the Ministry of Interior Affairs in Greece tried to prohibit this public vote. It will be organized along with the local parliamentary elections on May 18. However, votes for the referendum can only be cast outside the official polling places such as schools and city halls and not inside the polling stations themselves.

Another aspect which makes this unprecedented referendum so challenging is that the public water company of Thessaloniki is officially owned by the national state and thus decided on in Athens. So in formal terms it would require a national referendum. In practice this means that Prime Minister Samaras, who is very keen to sell public goods, will need to finally confirm the vote. In other words, this legally non-binding referendum not only reveals a power struggle between European and national level but also between the national level and the local level which makes the outcome of this citizen vote even more unpredictable.  In any event, it becomes evident that clearly defined and constitutionally guaranteed laws of direct democracy are needed in order to restore and guarantee democratic self-government in Greece and in Europe.