First ECI Hearing for Right2Water – What Legal Consequences Can We Expect?

2014-02-18 News

On Monday, February 17, the historic public hearing for ECI Right2Water – Europe’s first successful European Citizens’ Initiative – took place in the European Parliament in the presence of the Vice-President of the European Commission Maros Sefcovic. At this well-attended hearing the organizers of the Right2Water campaign urged the EU Commission to guarantee access to water and sanitation and declare it as a human right. Most speakers also raised more generally the ECI and European democracy, given the historic nature of this first ECI hearing (which you can watch again here).

In fact, the ECI instrument and its specific rules – including the hearing procedure – are fruits of The ECI Campaign’s long-term efforts for a citizen-friendly ECI. During the negotiations in 2010 on rules governing the ECI, the Commission and Council first rejected the obligation to hold a public hearing for successful ECIs. The ECI Campaign, alongside like-minded European Parliamentarians and the support of nearly 200.000 European citizens via an Avaaz petition, finally succeeded in introducing the hearing as a central element of the official ECI procedure. The pressing question now is: to what extent will this first successful ECI lead to legal consequences?

Getting Water onto the European Commission’s Agenda

Over 400 participants joined the hearing – lasting three and a half hours –  in Brussels. It was divided into three parts following the comprehensive objectives of ECI Right2Water: 1) guaranteed water and sanitation for all in the EU, 2) global access to water and sanitation for all and 3) no liberalization of water services.

The members of the Right2Water Citizens’ Committee were given several slots during the hearing to explain their initiative, respond to questions, and formulate final remarks. “We launched this initiative to get it on to the European Commission’s agenda. We wish to reiterate here that water provision and sanitation are essential public services for all” said Right2Water Citizens’ Committee chair Anne-Marie Perret. “It is important that citizens should be able to pay reasonable rates reflecting their needs, not those of distribution company shareholders. Today, they no longer hesitate to cut off the water of families in difficulty”, she added.

Matthias Groote (S&D, DE), chair of the hearing, expressed: “Parliament recognised that water is a shared resource of humankind and a public good and that access to water should constitute a fundamental and universal right in its the resolution of 3 July 2012 on the implementation of EU water legislation”, but “we need to do more to foster the participation of all actors of our society to make sure that the protection of water resources and of drinking water in particular is reflected into all our policies”.

Groote’s view was largely shared by participating Members of the European Parliament (MEP). Only a few opposed; among them, a British MEP expressed satisfaction with the highly privatized water sector in the UK. MEP Richard Seeber (EPP, AT) expressed that “Water should be accessible and affordable for all. However this is organised, should be left to Member States”.

Other MEPs such as Nikolaos Chountis (GUE/NGL, EL) stressed the citizens’ opposition to “attempted privatisation” of water distribution in Athens and Thessalonika, which counts among the measures imposed by the ECB/European Commission/IMF “Troika”. This is the context that triggered a more fundamental debate on EU democracy in which citizens’ views and the European Parliament are increasingly side-lined by intergovernmental decisions.

“A milestone in the history of European democracy”

Hailing the first-ever hearing on a Citizens’ Initiative as “a milestone in the history of European democracy” Gerald Häfner (Greens), of the Petitions Committee remarked: “Today, we are switching to listening mode. The question now is how we can better legislate on an issue that is crucial. Water is a human right and should remain in public hands”. “But how can we guarantee that this is also implemented by the Troika?” Evelyne Gebhardt (S&D, DE) agreed that water should not be governed by market rules and also voiced concerns that current trade negotiations between the EU and third countries could lead to back door liberalisation . Several participants at the hearing insisted that we need democratically-agreed rules that would serve citizens first, rather than primarily the interests of multinational companies . The big question is how this can this be made possible.

“We ask for a clear legislative commitment that water services will not be liberalized in the European Union” said Citizens’ Committee Vice-President Jan Willem Goudriaan. “We shall have a reason to celebrate when the European Commission acts to show that the ECI is not something that you can just shrug off”, he added.

The Commission remained silent at the hearing on how it is going to position itself, but stressed the importance of this ECI for democracy in Europe: “Citizens have shown a very clear proof that this instrument of participatory democracy works, that they would like to have a direct say and to communicate with EU institutions on how its agenda should be shaped” said European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič (see video documentary of meeting with Right2Water at EU Commission). Given the massive complaints by Right2Water on the poor implementation of the ECI instrument, leading to the loss of ten-thousands collected signatures, Šefčovič admitted, however, that improvement of the ECI instrument is needed: “We knew that the first electronic tool from transnational democracy would be difficult,” he said, adding “we need to make online collection of signatures easier” when the Commission revises the ECI rules in 2015.

Why is this ECI Hearing so important for the ECI instrument?

The community of ECI and democracy activists, including organisers of all ongoing ECIs, is carefully observing the still unclear outcome of this first hearing. We are now in one of the most important moments within the cumbersome ECI procedure, which will showcase whether the EU institutions, namely the EU Commission, take the citizens of a successful ECI seriously. EU institutions always promised that the ECI will have real impact on EU politics. Now is the moment of truth.

By March 20th, the EU Commission will decide if they will act; we can only expect more European Citizens’ Initiatives to come in the near future, should this be the case.  Otherwise, it will cause even more frustration over the EU. This is all the more important as the rules and practical implementation of the ECI instrument have a broad range of weaknesses, as ongoing ECIs – including Right2Water – have revealed at our recent conference. These improvements need to be prepared now so that the weaknesses can be fixed via a joint Council-Parliament decision on the regulation in the context of the official review in 2015. At our next event on April 15, The ECI Day 2014, The ECI Campagn will publish proposals to reform the ECI instrument. See our earlier proposals for revision here.

For more details and background connected to the ECI Right2Water:

Archived ECI Hearing from February 17 2014

First EU Commission’s reactions when Right2Water announced its success

– Case Study on Water ECI explaining its success

Background Paper by the European Parliament (February 14th)

Distribution list of signatures