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24 January 2015

European Citizens’ Initiatives: strengths and limits of a new form of direct democracy

Right to Water

Since 2012 European citizens have gained the right to place a topic on the European agenda provided they succeed in collecting one million signatures from at least seven member states within a year. This target was met by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) which in 2012 launched the European citizen initiative (ECI) ‘Right to Water’. Can this mechanism, an innovation enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, seriously be expected to foster direct democracy in Europe? The issue was debated on 22 January on the occasion of an ETUI monthly forum.

In the view of Andreas Bieler, a researcher at the University of Nottingham, the success of the EPSU initiative is attributable to the fact that this ECI sprung from a major and already well established international social movement. He enumerated earlier instances of mobilisation on the topic of water: a people’s revolt in 2000 against the privatisation of the municipal water supply system in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba; the People’s World Water Forum held in Florence in 2003; citizen movements that led to re-municipalisation of water in several European cities, including Paris and Berlin; and the adoption by the United Nations in 2010 of a resolution recognising access to drinking water as a fundamental right.

Andreas Bieler emphasised also the wide-ranging grassroots support enjoyed by the Right-to-Water initiative which brought together, in support of a basic human need, individuals, associations, NGOs and even churches from differing horizons.

Lynn Boylan, the Irish Euro MP (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) who is preparing a European Parliament report on this initiative, confirmed Bieler’s assertions. ‘I was surprised by the large numbers of women in the demonstrations organised in Ireland in protest at the introduction of water bills (drinking water being free of charge in Ireland, ed.). The power generated by the movement spread far beyond the usual activist circles’, she commented.

The success encountered by the ECI on the ‘right to water’ has to be interpreted against the background of public protest against austerity policies, said Louisa Parks from the University of Lincoln (East Midlands). The campaign to gather signatures surpassed initial targets in Italy, Spain and Greece, three countries subject to some of the most drastic austerity policies. In the Greek city of Thessaloniki, the population stood up to the Troika – IMF, ECB, European Commission – which had sought to impose privatisation of the companies responsible for the city’s water supply. In May 2014, 98% of the participants in a referendum said ‘no’ to privatisation. At the same time, the petition received massive support in other countries much less severely affected by crisis (Austria, Belgium, Netherlands), not to mention Germany which alone provided two thirds of the signatures.

Does this then mean that the ECI will succeed in becoming the standard approach to citizen democracy? Should civil society organisations see it as their standard instrument for the achievement of social change? In spite of the success of the EPSU-driven initiative, the reply from the organisation’s secretary general to this question was not unequivocal: though the project has indeed enabled the forging of some new alliances, well beyond the traditional activist circles, Jan Willem Goudriaan does not conceal his disappointment at the limited results of the campaign.

‘In spite of the support of the vast majority of Euro MPs, the Commission rejected our demand to include the universal right to water in a Directive’, he told the meeting. ‘Not to mention the cool welcome reserved for the call for non-liberalisation of water-linked services, which was the movement’s other main demand.’

While the former Commission had, under public pressure, agreed to remove water from the remit of the directive on public utilities, Mr Goudriaan fears that the new Commission may return to the fray. The multinationals responsible for water supply and sewage disposal, and their highly powerful lobbies, have certainly not backed down. The trade union leader fears that the counter-offensive is now likely to be led by the public/private partnerships strongly that receive strong support in the Juncker plan for revitalising the European economy.

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