In 2010 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) politically recognized the human right to water and sanitation.1 At that moment, worldwide, over one billion people lacked access to clean drinking water and over two and a half billion people lacked sanitation facilities.2
In 2011 the regulation for a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) entered into force in the European Union. This regulation arose from the Lisbon Treaty that describes the functioning of the European Union.3 With an ECI, it is possible to propose an issue for European legislation. If a group of citizens collects one million signatures from at least seven Member States within one year, the European Commission will take the proposal into consideration.4
The European federation of trade unions in the public services sector (EPSU) decided to take up the challenge and organize such an ECI. Motivated to challenge the neoliberal economic model of a European single market and convinced that water and sanitation is the most important public service and an essential human need that should not be privatized,5 EPSU chose the human right to water and its recognition by the UNGA in 2010 as departing point for an ECI.6 A legal framework converts political intentions into enforceable rights and obligations, and legitimizes the demand of vulnerable actors for access to water and sanitation services. It can move the discourse from one of charity to one of entitlement and force governments to prioritize these services, providing residents with a legal remedy.7 The ECI was a new tool in the trade union’s continuous struggle for a social Europe. They formed a citizens’ committee and a campaign coalition of civil society organizations and submitted an ECI in April 2012 officially titled ‘Water and sanitation is a human right, water is a public good!’ The ECI became known for its campaign-name ‘Right2Water.’8
Right2Water proposed to implement the human right to water and sanitation in European law.9 It gave three directions for implementation: 1. Guarantee water and sanitation services to all inhabitants in Europe; 2. Stop liberalization of water services; and 3. Increase efforts to achieve universal global access to water and sanitation.10 From May 2012 to September 2013 the organizers collected 1.9 million signatures across Europe and passed the quorum in 14 Member States (so over seven), becoming the first ever successful ECI that was initiated.11
How successful was Right2Water in terms of its demands and did it change political course and discourse of the European Union with regards to water services provision? This paper elaborates how the human right to water was instrumental to influence European policies on water services. Right2Water was extremely successful in Germany and would not have reached the one million signatures without the result in this single country. Because of this and because of the ‘weight’ of the German voice in the European Union, the paper focusses on the debate and incidents in Germany while factors that determined ‘success or failure’ in other countries are only slightly addressed. The paper is based on literature analysis and semi structured interviews with policy makers, European water movement leaders and activists.
The main author was appointed by EPSU to coordinate the Right2Water campaign, starting from preparations in 2010 until the response of the European Commission in 2014. The co-authors joined as ‘ambassadors’ and engaged researchers during the campaign period. Our socio-political but critical engagement with Right2Water’s main objectives implies that in this chapter we do not claim an illusory objective scientific stance or pretend any other positivist expert view.
2. Background: A snapshot of the European Union in 2012
The European Commission established a treaty in Lisbon in 2009 that set the principles and functioning of the European Union. One was formulated in article 11.4 of the Treaty on European Union: ‘Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.’12 The implementation of the principles was set out in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union in which the division of power and responsibilities between the European Union and the Member States has been established. In the regulation further details of the rules and conditions were set out: e.g. the specific minimum number of signatories for each country.13
Support for the European Union project was low in the years after the Lisbon treaty was established and voices for disintegration of the EU won considerable support (e.g. the emerging call for a Brexit). EU driven austerity measures had a strong negative impact on daily life of people. Unemployment was at a ‘high’ and banks needed to be rescued. This was felt most in peripherical countries, such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. These countries had to take harsh austerity measures to keep their national budgets in line with EU rules and experienced a drop in real wages, social services and an attack on public ownership.14 The European Union’s objective is in the first place the creation of a single market. Completion of the European Single Market entails a shift in control over public services from ‘State to market’ that has been promoted by the European Commission.15 Services like electricity and public transport had already been liberalized, water services were seen as next in line. Water privatization was already pushed in Greece and Portugal.16 Italy came under pressure in the second half of 2011, when Jean-Claude Trichet, the then President of the ECB, and Mario Draghi, who succeeded him in November 2011, urged ‘the full liberalisation of local public services (…) through large scale privatisations.’17 Privatization of public services has always been seen as problematic by public services trade unions. They feared job cuts, price increases and profits being taken out by multinational corporations.18 This was the situation in 2012 when the ECI Right2Water was launched.
3. Water and sanitation in the European Union and the problems with privatization
In 2012, most countries in the EU had a (close to) 100% coverage of water services.19 Countries that were significantly behind are Romania and Bulgaria, where most of the estimated 10 million people without access to water or sanitation in the EU live.20 The share of Bulgarians and Romanians in these figures is around 70%. Other countries with incomplete coverage of access to water and sanitation are Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Baltic States and Portugal. In order to prove itself as a Citizens’ Initiative for all Europeans, Right2Water urged as first proposal to ensure clean water and sanitation for all inhabitants, knowing that the majority of unserved or underserved was in Romania and Bulgaria (the ‘new’ Member States). The organizers counted on presence of feelings of solidarity among Western Europeans and trade unionists in particular, that would be supportive to advance the rights of people in Eastern Europe.
Water and sanitation are mostly provided by municipalities or public companies that are owned by local, regional or national authorities. Private sector provision of water is present in France and Spain where the model of concession contracts exists since the 19th century and in the United Kingdom where water companies have been privatized in the early eighties under Margaret Thatcher’s government2122. The privatizations in the UK caused a wave of privatizations in the rest of Europe in sectors such as public transport and energy supply. The European Commission had promoted further privatization of public services under the objective of completion of the European Single Market.23 EPSU had been campaigning against these privatizations and defending public sector workers. Experience with privatizations in the water sector have been very negative, running from increasing prices for citizens, profits taken abroad and loss of jobs.24 The city of Paris decided in 2008 to take back water supply in municipal hands because it was not happy with the services of Suez and Veolia, the two big French multinationals that had won the contract for service provision by making a deal between themselves: One would serve Paris north of the river Seine and the other would serve Paris south of the river. For years the private multinationals had made excess profits this way.25 In Germany the water sector was largely in hands of municipal, public companies (‘Stadtwerke’), but Berlin had a concession with RWE and Veolia. This concession contract had turned the water supply in Berlin into the most expensive in Germany and inhabitants claimed disclosure of the contract in a referendum.26 After a court decided that the contract could not remain secret it showed that in the contractual arrangement the profit was guaranteed for the multinationals.27
4. The European Citizens’ Initiative ‘Right2Water’
The idea of starting a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) was born at the Congress of the European federation of Public Services Unions (EPSU) in 2009.28 Trade unions were facing the effects of the economic and financial crisis and facing a European Commission that was dominated by a neo-liberal ideology that States should withdraw from economic sectors and open them up for a market. This process had already started in the nineties of the 20th century in for example energy, telecommunications and transport. The unions wanted to take this opportunity to express their wish for a social Europe that protects workers, rather than a European Market that puts workers in a more vulnerable position.
An ECI, however, must be based on one of the articles of the Lisbon treaty in order to receive permission to start collection of signatures.29 The ECI Right2Water based itself on Article 14 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) that says that services of general interest are a shared responsibility of EU and Member States.30 As such it is an area that is open to submit a proposal by means of an ECI. Water services (drinking water supply and sanitation) were defined as services of general interest in the Lisbon Treaty. Other formal requirements that needed to be met were the formation of a citizens committee of at least seven people from seven different Member States; disclosure of sponsors (if any) of the ECI, and the set-up of a secured website for the online collection of signatures, hosted by a certified hosting company to ensure privacy of supporters and prevent data collection for other purposes.31
EPSU met with all the formal requirements and submitted a proposal on Monday 2 April 2012. A proposal should consist of no more than 500 characters and make a clear demand to the European Commission.32 The organizers urged the European Commission to implement the human right to water and sanitation in European legislation and made three demands to indicate a direction that the Commission needed to go. These three demands encompassed the coverage of water and sanitation provision to all inhabitants in the European Union; a stop to liberalization of water services; and a bigger effort by the EU to achieve global universal access to water and sanitation.33 The second demand was the most important to the organizers, as it addressed directly the marketization policies of the Commission. The Initiative aimed to shift the focus of the European Commission from their market orientation to a rights-based and people-oriented approach in water policy. The fight against privatization of water services was a driving force behind the ECI. The organizers were well aware that privatization was not an issue of competence of the European Union. Right2Water strategically avoided the P-word and proposed to stop liberalization (= creation of a market) of water services. They aimed to keep water services in public hands and to prevent that these services would be handed over to profit driven corporations. Right2Water took a stance against private and profit-driven water companies with the slogan ‘water is a public good; not a commodity!’34 The human right to water was instrumental for this purpose.
The trade unions decided that a broad coalition needed to be formed in order to reach out to millions in Europe to support this ECI. In first instance cooperation was sought with organizations that EPSU had worked with before in anti-privatization campaigns such as the Reclaiming Public Water Network,35 but also new allies were sought and found in women groups like WECF, environmental organizations like the EEB and public health organizations like EPHA. An international alliance was formed in which during the campaign period 250 organizations joined. Having in mind the constitutions of South Africa,36 and Uruguay,37 as well as the Dutch water law,38 Right2Water had examples of legislation that they envisaged to be replicable for Europe.39 Especially the Constitution of Uruguay served as an example to Right2Water as it does not only recognize water and sanitation as a human right but also prohibits privatization of water services and promotes international solidarity cooperation to help other countries in achieving clean water and sanitation for all.4041 The Right2Water campaign joined in the ongoing global struggle for water justice.42 This struggle became visible after the ‘Cochabamba Water War’ in 2000 when people in Bolivia took the streets in protest against price hikes for their water after the privatization of their water supply.43 Right2Water took inspiration from the Italian Water Movement that organized a referendum in Italy against the privatization of water services in Italy in 2011. The referendum was a huge success with 26 million people voting NO to privatization of water services.44 The Italian water movement articulated its struggle in terms of water as human right and commons, framing the fight against water privatization as a paradigmatic battle for democracy.45 In Italy, the privatization of common goods was considered to be a flight from democracy. Water served as exponent: ‘write water but read democracy’, was the slogan of the Italian Water Movement.46 The expectation that the Italians would support a campaign at European level did not come true. During the first few months, signature collection remained low in Italy as well as in other countries. Implementing the human right to water apparently was not felt as an urgent problem. Right2Water needed to address a problem that was perceived as such by large groups of the populations in Europe. Ironically, this problem appeared with the proposal for a Concession Directive that asked Member States to open markets for public services, naming water services as one of these areas and the threat of privatization of water services that arose with this proposed directive.47
In December 2012 the German TV station ARD paid attention to the proposal for a concession directive, that requires opening of a market for municipal public water services, and the potential conflict with the ECI Right2Water that wanted to stop liberalization of water services. European commissioner Barnier tried to deny that there was a potential conflict and denied that the directive would support the interests of private companies, but his comments only increased suspicion.48 Right2Water now made it to the German media and the interest for the campaign grew in Germany. After the position of Commissioner Barnier was ridiculed by a German comedian (Erwin Pelzig),49 the signature collection for Right2Water skyrocketed. Between January and May 2013, the number of signatures went up from 100,000 to 1.3 million of which the largest part was from Germany (see Table 1). By March seven countries already had passed the quorum. In September 2013 the campaigners decided to stop the signature collection, having reached a total of more than 1.8 million signatures and successfully achieving the quorum in 14 countries.
|Country||Total signatures||Minimum signatories required EU|
The vast majority of signatures were collected in Germany, where media attention and public concern about the concession directive were high. Surprisingly, in the countries where access to water was the lowest, the human right to water was not considered as a problem for most of the population. In Romania and Bulgaria people did not get enthusiastic for the ECI that addressed a problem for a minority group.51 The people that suffered from lack of access to water and sanitation in these countries were Roma groups and Right2Water campaigners did not manage to mobilize them.52 On the contrary Right2Water did achieve to mobilize Roma people to sign for the ECI in Hungary in cooperation with the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), but this was only after water supply was disconnected in the town of Ozd.53
5. Debates around the human right to water and sanitation and privatization
The recognition of the human right to water and sanitation by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 was a result of the confluence of ongoing campaigns by civil society organisations (CSOs),54 the newly elected Bolivian president Evo Morales and the connection with the Cochabamba water wars in 2001. The debate on the human right to water came on the fast track after four countries (Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador and South Africa) decided to make a separate declaration after the World Water Forum in Istanbul in 2009. The World Water Forum is a three-yearly gathering of water companies, governments and CSOs dealing with water issues around the globe and is organized by the World Water Council (WWC). When the WWC tried to conclude the Forum in Istanbul with a global statement of governments, promoting private sector participation in the provision of water services, CSOs lobbied for putting the human right to water over private sector involvement.55 They claimed that water is not a commodity that can be provided by a market, but a human right that must be fulfilled by States. Here the basis was laid for the resolution proposed by Bolivia to the United Nations General Assembly a year later.56
Another ongoing process was the research and work of the UN independent expert on the human right to water and sanitation. Catarina de Albuquerque, a Portuguese human rights lawyer, was appointed in 2008 by the UN and tasked with a mission to promote the human right to water and sanitation. Global recognition that the right to water was a prerequisite to fulfil MDG 7 and to fulfil other human rights was slowly growing.57 On 28 July 2010 the resolution put forward by Bolivia, was voted and accepted with 122 countries voting in favour, 41 abstentions and no vote against.58 The vote was welcomed as a victory by civil society. However, also private water companies claimed to be a promotor of the human right to water and called the vote a victory for private water operators.59 The human right to water had become immediately a tool in the debate on privatization of water.
General Comment 15 of the United Nations Committee on Social and Cultural Rights says that ‘the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.’60 Furthermore it puts the primary responsibility in the hands of States to ensure that adequate regulatory frameworks are in place. The Right2Water campaigners never referred to General Comment 15. The European Water Framework Directive states that: Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.’61 It does not make a reference to human rights, but it supports the view that water is not a commodity. However, in the same directive there is a reference to the principle of ‘full cost recovery.’62 Although this is meant to include costs of pollution and purification in water pricing, it has been contested by human rights activists, saying that water pricing is a market approach, thus supporting privatization, that is at odds with a human rights approach.63 This position was taken by the Right2Water campaigners with the slogan: ‘Water is a public good, not a commodity!’ They tried to bring the message that fulfilment of the human right to water for all and privatization or liberalization of water services are incompatible.
For many Europeans, the debate seemed to be very abstract and far from home. European liberalization policies, the Lisbon treaty or the human right to water were no issues in their daily life. Only insiders were aware of the interlinkages between water management and EU policies. The debate only reached a wider audience after the broadcasting of German ARD Monitor on the Concession Directive exposed the conflict between the Commissioner’s view on opening the market for public services (= liberalization) and Right2Water’s demand to stop further liberalization of water services. The proposal for a Concession Directive met with a lot of resistance in Germany, where municipalities and the local ‘Stadtwerke’ found they were best capable of delivering water services to their inhabitants and did not want to hand their services over to French multinationals.64 The proposal to concession water services boils down to exporting the French model to the rest of Europe. The companies that would benefit most from this Directive would be the French multinationals in water services as they are the only ones that are looking to expand their market in Europe.65 Berlin had a bad experience in its water concession to multinationals. The contract turned the water supply in Berlin into the most expensive in Germany for a service that was considered of poor quality.66 After a court decided that the contract had to be disclosed to the public, it appeared that the profits for the multinationals were contractually guaranteed.67 This case was a driver for people in Germany to support Right2Water, when it became apparent that the new Concessions Directive would increase the opportunities for multinational corporations to take over municipal water services and would push municipalities into unwanted Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs).68 Citizens demanded to keep control over what they considered ‘their’ water services.69 The German population and many of the ‘Stadtwerke’ saw a real threat in the Concessions Directive. German and Austrian media approached Right2Water and put the campaign in the spotlights.70 The controversy that the ECI evoked was not about the human right to water. This point was agreed upon by all actors in the water sector. The controversy arose over the point whether water is a commodity or a public good. This was widely debated in Germany. In no other country so many people expressed their view in favor of Right2Water. If water is regarded as a public good, this excludes the possibility of privatizing the resource.71 However, privatizing the water service provision is another matter.72 The Right2Water organizers contested the possibility of private companies providing public services. They wanted a Europe in which water services would be provided by publicly owned organizations that would be accountable to the public, rather than provided via a market by private companies that would only be accountable to their shareholders.
Creating a market undermines the objective of universal service provision. Market principles bear the risk of exclusion of those poorer people and less powerful sectors that cannot afford the newly established water prices.73 Moreover, in many instances people lose control over their local sources. And íf, in these cases, governments would subsidize water supply to the poor, it would imply that the governments subsidize the profits of the corporations. Balanyá (2007) concluded that ‘strengthening the democratic, public character of water services is fundamentally at odds with the currently dominant neoliberal model.’74 A human right to water does not imply that water should be accessed for free, although this is at odds with cultural and religious views on water in many parts of the world.75 Moreover, drinking water is a non-substitutable resource that is essential for life and a networked water supply is a natural monopoly.76 The objections against privatization of water services increase when the profits go to multinational corporations, while the prices are paid by (poor) people.77 Problems with water privatization often occur soon after the initial wave of enthusiasm and range from lack of infrastructure investment to environmental neglect and socio-economic discrimination and injustices.78 The Cochabamba Water War is seen as the most prominent example of a water conflict following from privatization of water services.79
The human right to water and sanitation does not foreclose private sector management of water supply systems. However, strong market failures provide an overwhelming justification for public regulation and ownership of assets.80 Privatization of water supply is thus inconsistent with a human right to water unless it is coupled with a universality requirement (e.g.: a law prohibiting disconnections) and with a strong regulatory framework for price controls, quality standards and maintenance of and investment in infrastructure.81 Still this would not inhibit profit making by a private company through a monopoly position in the provision of a necessary service. Most privatizations in water are in shape of a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) where services are handed over to a private company, but the grid remains in hands of the government. The PPP model weakens the democratic influence and control of municipalities and their inhabitants on the way public water is supplied.82
Nearly all private water companies in Europe (apart from the UK) are subsidiaries or partially owned by the two French multinationals in water: Veolia and Suez.83 This has large implications not just for tariffs but in particular for water control and decision-making and the danger of private monopolies, underinvestment and corruption.84 In the case of Berlin, openness of the contract between the city authority and private companies was forced through a referendum in 2011.85 The revelation of the contract and the public condemnation of it made the city council decide to terminate it and induced the remunicipalisation of the Berlin water company.86 The PPP had led to non-transparent responsibility structures, non-transparent financial transactions and fees calculation, and growing prices for the public.87 This case was fresh in the minds of people in Germany when Right2Water campaigned. From their side, the multinationals claimed that they were promoters of the human right to water and sanitation and that Right2water was only fuelled by a German public lobby.88
6. Results and impact of the campaign
Apart from the huge success in Germany, Right2Water achieved political results in Greece where activists organized a referendum against privatization of the water company in Thessaloniki and in Slovenia where the Constitution was adapted after the ECI.8990 In March 2014, the European Commission responded to the ECI organizers of Right2Water. In its response, the Commission recognizes ‘the importance of water as a public good of fundamental value to all Union citizens.’91 This was a recognition of what Right2Water had campaigned for and an absolute victory for the movement, but the only concrete result was the exclusion of water from the Concession Directive that was actually achieved halfway through the campaign.92 European Parliamentarians started an initiative to bring the proposals of Right2Water back on the agenda of the European Commission, expressing their view that the Commission had fallen short in its answer.93
In its answer, the Commission also stated that ‘the EU has consistently played a positive role to ensure that access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation becomes a reality for all, both within and outside Europe.’94 Furthermore, the Commission’s answers said that ‘EU water policy is based on the principle that affordability of water services is critical. National authorities are competent for taking concrete support measures safeguarding disadvantaged people and tackling water-poverty issues.’95 and that ‘the provision of water services is generally the responsibility of local authorities.’96 In short: The Commission leaves implementation of the human right to water to the Member States and feels no need to change or amend any existing legislation. A commitment that the Commission makes in its response is to hold a public consultation for the revision of the Drinking Water Directive, but this was not a demand of Right2Water.
The answer was a disappointment for the Right2Water campaigners.97 In simple terms the answer was that the Commission had already done a lot to improve access to water and sanitation, and that it did not force privatization. However, the argument that Right2Water tried to make was that creating a market (= liberalization) is opening the door for private companies to take over public water services. The proposal for a Concession Directive might not force privatization, but it does pave the way for privatization. When privatized, control could be turned in the hands of profit-oriented companies that must ensure their profits in the first place, not human rights.
Already during the campaign, just after Right2Water had gained the one million signatures in May 2013,98 the European Commission withdrew its proposal for the Concession Directive.99 In the final version of the Directive water services were exempted from being opened to international competition. The public consultation on the revision of the Drinking Water Directive in 2015 led to an overwhelming response of citizens that did an effort to fill in a technical questionnaire on the quality of drinking water services in the European Union. The process of revision took a long time, but finally, in 2018, the European Commission declared in its revision of the Drinking Water Directive that the demands of the ECI Right2Water were at the basis of the revised directive.100 In the new directive the Commission encourages Member States to prioritize vulnerable and marginalized groups in the provision of drinking water in accordance with the human right to water and sanitation.101 Something that the European Commission referred to in its answer in 2014 as an issue to be left to Member States.
7. Discussion and Conclusion
The debate on private vs. public provision of water and sanitation services continues with the same arguments being used by both sides. Right2Water strategically had avoided the word ‘privatization’ but the campaign was well understood in this way. Right2Water successfully claimed that fulfilment of the human right to water for all and privatization or liberalization of water services are incompatible; water services were exempted from the concession directive. Although the human right to water originally had been taken in by CSOs and linked to commons and public good, it has also been captured by private companies that use it as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility arguments. The human right to water and sanitation has sharpened the debate on privatization and has proven to be a tool that is used by proponents as well as opponents of privatization of water services.
Right2Water has put the human right to water and sanitation high up on the European political agenda. In fact, both the ECI as well as the human right to water have been used as instruments in the struggle for ‘a social Europe.’ It exposed the controversies between private service providers and proponents of public water management and raised awareness of the political struggles that were behind water services and water management. The Concession Directive would have opened competition between multinational corporations and municipalities. The safeguarding of municipal, public water services has been the biggest achievement of Right2Water. The movement successfully challenged the European neoliberal model when it concerns water supply. Public control over water services is essential to ensure availability, affordability, quality and access for all; i.e. to ensure the human right to water and sanitation.
The idea that people would support the ECI just for the promotion of the human right to water and sanitation or for reasons of solidarity appeared to be a misapprehension. The human right to water in itself was not felt as a problem for citizens until people saw their local water supply being threatened. At such moments Right2Water gained support. The campaigners needed to address local sentiments and circumstances and specify their message to address the situation and conditions in each country. Success at European level came first in Germany, after ARD Monitor revealed the conflict between the proposal for a Concession Directive and Right2Water and the emerging threat of privatization of water services started to resonate. The threat of privatization was felt in Greece, Spain, Italy, Slovenia and Slovakia where Right2Water became successful. In Austria, Belgium, Finland, Lithuania and the Netherlands this threat was not prominent, but citizens gave a signal by signing for the ECI. The success of Right2Water in Hungary was directly linked to the cut-off of Roma people in Ozd of their water supply. All these results together made that Right2Water achieved to halt liberalization of water services in Europe and achieved that the European Commission acknowledged that ‘water is a public good’ and changed its discourse and policy with regards to water services.
Prioritization of vulnerable groups in the revised Drinking Water Directive in 2018 is definitely a step towards implementation of the human right to water and sanitation in Europe. It responds to the first demand of Right2Water. However, linking the provision of tap water to the consumption of bottled water shows that intrinsically the view of the European Commission towards water has not changed. Although the Commission declared that water is a public good,’ the assumption that increasing or decreasing bottled water consumption is related to decreasing or increasing tap water use, indicates that the Commission’s viewpoint is still regarding water as a commodity. The discourse has certainly been influenced but the debate over what implementation of the human right to water and sanitation means and how it relates to liberalization and privatization of water services is far from over.