December 1, 2014 News

A_RefThess-EinHistorischerMomentInGriechenlandGreek activists of the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative “Water is a Human Right” have made an impressive statement in favour of more participatory democracy and the democratic control of public services. In May 2014 they conducted a self-organised referenudm against the privatisation of Thessaloniki’s water supply. Read the report by Carsten Berg and Florian Schmitz on the long-term political consequences and latest democracy developments in Greece.

Just under two million people across Europe supported the first European Citizens’ Initiative “Water is a Human Right”, which included a demand to prevent the privatisation of water in the EU. The Commission refused to act on any issue related to the privatisation of public services, including water, claiming that this was an issue within the scope of Member State. At the same time, however, the Commission is imposing a painful austerity policy on the crisis-ridden countries of Southern Europe – a policy that includes the privatisation of public goods and services. This flagrant contradiction produces not only feelings of anger and powerlessness among the Greek people, but also a determination to resist. In Thessaloniki local activists of the European Citizens’ Initiative “Water is a Human Right” succeeded to tackle the problem at the local level using new forms of citizens participation through direct democracy. The people of Thessaloniki organised an unofficial referendum on the city’s water supply. In a country whose structures and systems are not exactly citizen- and democracy-friendly, the emergence of such a popular campaign was a small miracle.

Democratic renaissance

The idea of a referendum had surfaced in various groups after the first attempts at privatisation in 2008, but the process really got moving after an appeal by the citizens’ movement ‘Soste to Nero’ (Save the Water). Working with the local councils in this second-largest city in Greece, activists spent a year preparing the referendum, which they hoped would primarily have symbolic force – since as yet Greek law does not provide for an official referendum in such cases, and even an unequivocal outcome of a referendum has no binding force on the Greek government in Athens. Since 2006, the Greek constitution has included elements of direct democracy, also at the local level, but no implementing law that would determine the process in detail and thus make it practically usable has so far been passed.

Thus the citizens of Thessaloniki had no other choice than to take matters into their own hands. A self-organised refererendum was the only way of reflecting the clear majority opinion in the population in favour of retaining public control of the water supply – a position not reflected in the actions of the parliament and government. The referendum was set to take place on 18 May – the same day as the local council elections – and was publicised through an extensive campaign of public information. The campaign aroused enormous interest, and more than 1,500 people volunteered to help with the referendum. More than 50% of those who voted in the council elections also voted either for or against the privatisation of the city’s water works. The outcome was far better than the wildest expectations: on a turnout of around 40%, 98% of voters voted against selling the profitable public water company to the French “Suez” and Israeli “Mekorot” companies.

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In total, 218,000 citizens voted – even though the Greek government had tried at the last moment to block the referendum. Less than 24 hours before the polling stations opened, the Interior Ministry had declared the referendum to be illegal – because of its linkage to the council elections. The Ministry threatened to punish anyone who handed out ballot papers. Juán Antonio Julián, coordinator of the observers who had come from all parts of Europe, said: “The government is just bluffing. In fact, we think that this has given a boost to the whole affair”.
He was right. The police did not intervene. None of the international observers reported any incidents. On the contrary, they had praise for the efficient organisation of the vote. The Athens ban necessitated some rapid changes. The ballot boxes had to be positioned outside the official polling stations and the voter lists restricted to first and family names only in order to exclude any connection to the council elections. Despite this, the referendum proceeded smoothly.

After the success

In the first few weeks after the vote and its unmistakeable outcome, neither the government nor TAIPED – the official state holding company responsible for privatisation sales – made any comment. It was only months later that TAIPED announced that the deal had been put on hold. The successful referendum had made a critical contribution to this. Two weeks after the vote, the Greek Constitutional Court – the supreme legal instance in the country – had declared that water was a public good and could not be privatised. It referred to articles 5 and 21 of the Greek constitution which make public health an affair of the state. The court thereby obliged the government to ban the sale of the water company not only in Thessaloniki, but also in Athens.

The referendum thus surpassed the hoped-for symbolic effect and demonstrated forcefully that citizens can exert an influence also in the context of an unofficial referendum. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the sale is really off the agenda. The activists around “Soste to Nero’ are optimistic, but they still have doubts as to whether Athens will keep its word. Jorgos Archontopolous, head of the Thessaloniki water company’s trade union, said: “Water will continue to be in the sights of the free market. The shares are still owned by TAIPED and we will continue to fight until at least 51% of the shares are back in public hands”.

More transparency, more democracy!

Eleanna Ioannidiou, civil rights lawyer and member of the city council of Thessaloniki, shares the cautious joy of the organisers. “The referendum made a big impact because some citizens who normally support the government were also opposed to the sale. Athens doesn’t want to lose their votes. But what we need now above all is public control of the drinking water in order to create transparency”. Jana Tsokou of “Soste to Nero” is of the same opinion: “We need an initiative to inform the citizens about the condition of the water pipes and the quality of the drinking water so that we can keep a check on these things”. In her view, the referendum was not just a fight about water, “but a fight for the right to be able to hold a referendum at all”.

There is no shortage of potential referendum issues. The “Troika” is demanding that Greece sell many other public goods – including airports, sea ports, railway networks and such “holy cows” as islands and beaches. A law that was passed behind closed doors used the constitution to declare that the whole Greek coastline was public property. The government was only brought to think again about the sale of parts of the coastline after two online petitions collected large numbers of signatures. Thus, direct participation by the citizens might finally be able to get some movement into a Greek administrative apparatus that is normally infected by a lack of transparency, and by corruption and favouritism. At the same time, there is some greater hope that the issue of water – something that everyone can understand – can give rise to something like a Europe-wide protest and democracy movement.

Florian Schmitz
– freelance writer from Thessaloniki. Blog: www.eudyssee.net on the positive and negative effects of the crisis in Greece.

Carsten Berg
– heads “The ECI Campaign” (www.citizens-initiative.eu) for the successful introduction and implementation of the European Citizens’ Initiative.