EU Commission backs down after successful “Water is a Human Right” ECI – water now excluded from EU directive

2013-06-22 News

Reacting to the massive protests against the threat of public water supplies being privatised, EU Commissioner Michel Barnier has stated that “the best solution” now appears to be “to remove water from the scope of the concessions directive” (full statement here). The Commission is thus bowing to the political pressure which millions of EU citizens and many NGOs have generated over recent months. More than 1.6 million EU citizens gave their signatures of support to the demand for free access to water and the public provision of a basic sanitory infrastructure presented by the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative “Water is a Human Right”.

The initiative was also protesting against the EU’s plans to push through legislation to allow for the ‘liberalisation’ (privatisation) of water. Since more than a million people in seven EU countries supported the initiative, the initiators can now require the EU Commission to respond on the issue. The “statements of support” will be turned in for validation on September 9th (see our interview with the German validation authorities) and officially submitted to the Commission this autumn. A public hearing on this issue will then follow at the European Parliament with the EU Commission present.

EU Commissioner Barnier listening to citizens’ protest

Barnier stated that it was not the Commission’s intention to produce legislative proposals that would lead to the privatisation of water services: “Even though there has been no such risk, the fact is that citizens have thought there was and they have made very clear their views on the issue. I fully understand why citizens are both angry and upset when they are told their water services might be privatised against their will. I would feel the same if there was such a risk.” With explicit reference to the ECI “Water is a Human Right”, Barnier conceded “that the text we now have relating to water is not satisfactory for anyone: it does not provide the reassurances that citizens expect and it creates fragmentation in the single market. That is why the best solution now appears to be to remove water from the scope of the concessions directive.”

Protests particular strong in Germany

As the distribution of signatures shows, most supporters of the ECI “Water is a Human Right” come from Germany. While in many EU countries this issue is still marginal, the German media have been reporting about it for months (see here with English subtitels). In Germany the EU plans had aroused fears that local authorities would be forced to sell off their water distribution services to private companies, thus losing control of both costs and quality. In consequence the German umbrella organization of municipalities and cities as well as Chancellor Merkel herself had warned of this. Consumer affairs minister Ilse Aigner expressed her pleasure at the EU decision: water was not a commodity like others, “but the most vital substance for life”. The public water supply was at the heart of essential municipal services. Decisions on it should be made locally, not in Brussels. “It’s good that the EU Commission has given in on this”.

First Successful ECI Despite Massive Legal and Technical Barriers 

With more than 1.6 million collected signatures, this initiative is the first ECI in European history to have succeeded in collecting the required minimum number of signatures. The organizers of the ‘Water is a Human Right” initiative are to be congratulated all the more as they had to manage their campaign under extraordinarily difficult conditions. Thousands of signatures were lost due to major defects in the online collection system offered by the European Commission.

Not only technical problems have plagued the ECI; also the strict legal framework has made the success of this initiative remarkable. Campaigners report that EU citizens living outside of the EU cannot sign initiatives and people are generally reluctant to sign ECIs in countries that require IDs. 17 member states ask their citizens for personal identification numbers when signing an ECI. Such requirements are unnecessarily intrusive, raise privacy concerns and deter individuals from engaging in the democratic process. It is no coincident that most signatures were collected in member states with no ID number requirements. While the European Data Protection Supervisor concluded that ID card numbers are unnecessary for the purpose of an ECI, it is nonetheless mandatory in the majority of member states.

In 2015 the ECI rules will be officially reviewed. The ECI Campaign will therefore intensify its campaign efforts for a citizen-friendly design of the ECI right that should become as widely accessible as possible to citizens. See our latest proposals on how to change the ECI regulation here.

More Background:

– Website “Water is a Human Right”

Statement of th European Commission (June 21st)

Official response statement of “Water is a Human Right” (June 24th)

– A Special Feature by the ECI Campaign (March 2013): “Right 2 Water Initiative Pioneering the million, targeting transnationality, changing policy

– German Media exmaples of today and yesterday (June 21st): Tagesschau and SPIEGEL

– For more information contact: ECI Campaign Coordinator Carsten Berg