Democracy in the EU: The ECI is not quite there yet

Water is precious and EU citizens fear that it might be privatized. (c)

The European Commission (EC) published a 17-page communication on 19 March 2014 to give its response to the first successful European Citizens Initiative (ECI). An ECI is an instrument of direct democracy that was introduced thanks to the Lisbon Treaty. It allows EU citizens to collect one million signatures in at least seven member states on an issue during a certain time period and when successful to propose new legislation. ECI’s should be one mean to fill the gap of the “democratic deficit” in the EU. The first successful ECI called Right2Water was officially submitted to the EC by its organizers on 20 December 2013 and the Commission had three months to respond to the 1.66 million people who signed the initiative.

Rights2Water demanded from the EC “to implement the human right to water and sanitation in European law.” In their response in the communication (pages 7-13 are the interesting ones), the EC recalls the importance of the human right to water and sanitation and states the importance of water as a public good and fundamental value and that “water is not a commercial product.” In a press release, Commissioner Maros Sefcovic said that “water quality, infrastructure, sanitation and transparency will all benefit” from this ECI.

The vast majority of signatures come from Germany (1.2 million), followed by Italy (65,000), Austria and Spain (both 58,000) – countries where the topic of clean water is particularly controversial and hotly debated. In 13 of the 27 member states (Croatia did not take part) the threshold was reached that is necessary (according to the population – like 14,250 signatures in Austria or 74,250 in Germany), although interestingly in four of the seven countries where members of the citizens committee reside did not make it (Bulgaria, France, Sweden and the UK). The Commission received the organizers on 17 February 2014 for an interchange and they were also given the opportunity to present their initiative at a public hearing organized at the European Parliament.

The Right2Water ECI called on the Commission to ensure that all EU citizens enjoy the right to water and sanitation, to exclude water supply and management of water resources from internal market rules and liberalization and to increase its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation around the world. In short, water should be a commons, not a commodity. One of their key concerns is that EU law guarantees the right to water and sanitation, including a minimum supply to all Europeans regardless of their ability to pay. In several EU countries, it was seen as unjust when citizens had their water supply cut after being unable to pay their bills. The Right2Water argues that this should not be possible because the right to water is a human right.

The concessions directive, which aims for more transparency in the delivery of public services, sparked strong resistance among many Europeans and NGOs. Critics argued that through the backdoor the EC would be in favor of privatizing water. In the meantime, the EC has scrapped water from a list of issues on a trade agenda. Trade Commissioner Barnier issued with very strong and clear words in a statement in June 2013 that water is off the table from negotiations on the concessions directive. This was celebrated as a success by the Rights2Water initiative and helped them to gain support.

As the EC argues, the decision on how best to operate water services is firmly in the hands of the public authorities in the member states – thereby the EC plays the ball towards the national, regional or local authorities responsible for water. According to the EC, the unique nature of water and sanitation services in satisfying the basic needs of the population have been consistently acknowledged in EU legislation. On a global scale, the EU and its member states currently provide close to €1.5 billion/year for water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs in developing countries, making the EU the largest single donor in the world in this area.

Now the EC promises “concrete steps and new actions” in areas that are related with Right2Water ECI, although it is somewhat meager to read. These nine points rather read like excuses to write down something but without responding in reality to any kind of change that is wanted by the initiative and the people who signed it. This is turn is making the organizers angry and the picture of an EU that is far away from its citizens is promoted just another time.

The most concrete step might be an EU-wide public consultation process on the drinking water legislating in relation to improving the access to quality water in the EU. Commissioner Sifcovic is optimistic that this will lead to a revision of existing legislation. In addition, Sefcovic commented that the EU executive would urge governments to offer a minimum water supply to all citizens of at least 20-25 liters of drinking water per day (as recommended by the World Health Organization). However, no legal means will be introduced by the EC to enforce that.

Now, the campaign group accused the commission of “lacking ambition” and that the people who signed the ECI would be disappointed. In particular the lack of not recognizing the human right to water is seen as a defeat for the organizers of the ECI. The EC argued, however, that their hands would be tied by the EU treaty, which leaves most decisions on water provisions in the hands of local and national government. The ECI also asked for a legal commitment that there would be no EU initiatives to liberalize water and sanitation services. But there is nothing in the EC communication on that. Moreover, the EC does not want to commit itself to explicitly exclude any water services from trade negotiations such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

According to an article of the European Voice, a senior official involved in drafting the Commission’s response said that it would be politically tricky for the Barroso administration to propose legislation that would then have to be negotiated by the next Commission, expected to take office on 1 November 2014. Overall, the handling of the first ECI has not been done all that well by the Commission. It will be important that the organizers of an ECI will feel that they are taken seriously and even more so the citizens who are concerned. Otherwise, the ECI will be a boomerang and the dissatisfaction with EU policies will even be higher instead of lower. And that would be indeed a shame, because ECIs are a great way to engage citizens and strengthen democracy.

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