Special Feature: Right 2 Water Initiative Pioneering the million, targeting transnationality, changing policy

March 13, 2013 News

Lessons and Successes of the “Right2Water” Initiative

The Right2water European Citizens’ Initiatives is a pioneer among the first more than 25 attempts to set the EU agenda. In early February this ECI hit the magic hurdle of one million statements of support. As those signatures must come from a transnational sample, the initiative continues. At the same time it offers an interesting showcase on the options and limits of the new tool. Read the report by Carsten Berg.

This ECI aims at establishing water and sanitation as a human right and providing water as a public good by keeping it out of the internal market rules. The organizers are against the liberalization of water services in the EU:  “We want the Union to change their mindset from its current focus on competition and a completely market-based approach to a public service attitude and a rights-based approach. It is a ‘natural’ monopoly and must be kept out of internal market rules.”

The European Commissioner for the Single Market, Michel Barnier, has argued that his legislation would not impose the privatization of water, as he recognizes it as a common good. However, he does not plan to exempt water from the internal market rules. In particular his legislation, the so-called “Directive on Concessions”, focuses on granting public bodies the right to tender public services, including water distribution, to private businesses if they want to do so. Given the intense debate on this issue Barnier declared that he would reformulate his proposal, giving more room for public bodies to decide how to deal with water. But the controversial debate continues, while a million citizens want to see the pledge for the protection of water to be waterproofed by having it written into EU law.

Properly fundraised and well prepared ECI

The right2water ECI has been initiated by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) which is an umbrella organization representing more than 270 unions or 8 million public service workers across Europe.

The EPSU didn’t only prepare their campaign plan well in advance; they also fundraised 100,000 EUR before even beginning the campaign – about the amount experts recommend you to start with if you want to conduct a fully-fledged and successful ECI. The funds are used for paid staff and the manifold tasks connected with an ECI, in particular assisting with practical and organizational issues such as translations, the registration, legal expertise, the development of the website, regular newsletters as well as volunteer and signature return management. In addition, further EPSU staff are investing time over the entire collection process which is estimated by the initiative to cost up to 50-80,000 EUR. Moreover, the organizers inspired the creation of new networks that go far beyond EPSU’s own established networks – such as action groups from the environmental, social and health sectors. Political parties also jumped on the train to promote the initiative at regional and national level. For example, the parliament of Andalucía, the most populous region of Spain, voted in favor of supporting this ECI. While it is not easy to calculate and convert into financial terms, it becomes clear that the right2water ECI is strongly backed by a well elaborated network and a wide-ranging infrastructure.

Challenging campaign start

The ECI applied for registration with the EC on the first possible day in April 2012 and was officially registered by the Commission on May 10th, 2012 as the second ECI in history. But even though this initiative had been prepared and financed very well in advance, a lot of patience was required before one could see this ECI taking off. After the first half year, only 3.5% of the necessary signatures had been collected. In contrast to other registered ECIs, right2water first began to collect statements of support in the traditional paper-based way.  However, the figures ultimately speak a clear language about the dominating mode of participation: only about 5% of signatures have been collected on paper and the other 95% of supporters have signed online (see diagram above).

The numbers of supporters are not equally distributed per month – as shown in the table below – but have strongly increased beginning in mid-January 2013 when the European Commission was proposing specific legislation and national mass media, in particular public TV in Germany (see ARD  here + here as well ZDF here), were reporting on the issue as a potential threat to public water quality. However, the table shows that this did not happen uniformly in all European member states, but only in Germany and Austria.

The distribution of signatures by early February 2013 showed a high concentration, with 84% of supporters coming from Germany. The minimum quorum of at least 74,250 supporters has been exceeded there twelve times over, with a total of more than 900,000 collected signatures. Similarly in Austria, where more than 5% of the signatures come from, and where the minimum quorum of at least 14,250 supporters has been exceeded four times with a total of more than 50,000 collected signatures. By February 9th, 2013, when the magic one million target was hit, only Germany, Austria and Belgium had reached the minimum quorum. This implies that this initiative must continue to collect a substantial number of signatures in order to reach the distribution quorum of at least seven member states. The ECI must also continue to collect support to compensate for potentially invalid signatures. In fact, up to 20% of signatures could be invalidated by national authorities as a result of incomplete or inaccurate information.

The online challenge

The initial slow growth of this initiative can be explained by various factors. On the one hand, the water issue was not very well known yet in Europe, with the same being true for the ECI instrument as such. It thus takes a long time to outreach and to communicate the message Europe-wide. But it is not only time that is crucial; the technicalities of the online collection system (OCS) are also decisive. Due to the fact that the OCS didn’t work in the first months, the European Commission had to apologize to ECI organizers, offering all registered ECIs an extension on the collection deadline to November 2013. However, the organizers of this ECI continue to report that even in 2013 thousands of signatures have been lost due to major defects in the online collection system offered by the European Commission.

Legal barriers difficult to overcome

In view of the strict legal framework, the relative success of this ECI is remarkable. Campaigners report that EU citizens living outside their home country often cannot sign initiatives. For example, Dutch citizens living in Austria report that they cannot sign in Austria as they need an Austrian passport or ID card in order to sign. But they also cannot sign in the Netherlands as the Dutch authorities require them to be residing in the Netherlands.

In addition, citizens are generally reluctant to sign ECIs in countries that require ID or passport details. Eighteen 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. The ECI right2water distribution table shows that more than 95% of statements of support are coming from countries that do not require ID card numbers. This can be interpreted as an unequal treatment of citizens when it comes to participation at European level.

Critical alliance-building

The ‘Water is a Human Right’ initiative is a remarkable example of citizens proposing law through the ECI. Several factors explain its success. The most important one is that the campaign has been very well prepared, fundraised and organized with sufficient time. It has been crucial that it transformed into a broad alliance that goes far beyond the initiating public service unions to include thousands of volunteers and groups such as environmental organizations and political parties. This ECI would not be as successful as it is if it had not been covered by the mass media. The conclusion is that an ECI takes off if it is connected with current issues that have a national impact and are covered by the national mass media. The ECI organizers have succeeded in placing a relatively unknown issue on the European agenda with a new – and for many citizens still unknown – ECI instrument which in many ways is still in its infancy.

This article has been written by Carsten Berg and is part of the ECI Briefing Package.