Water: we all need it, it makes up most of our bodies and 70% of the planet’s surface is covered in it. However, in a temperate and economically developed continent, the supply of water is pretty much taken for granted. But some EU citizens want to take this further and enshrine access to water as a fundamental human right using a very new tool which lets the people of Europe to propose laws.
The campaign was launched this week with much fanfare by a network of European NGOs and trade unions. The EU has led the world on human rights and environmental issues. Despite sounding fluffy and idealist, the campaign and the petition have real consequences. As well as declaring access to water as a human right, it calls for water to be taken away from the ‘free market’.
Across Europe, water companies have taken over the running of former state services and bills have risen for consumers who essentially got the same services. Privatisation has worked in other cases, but water has been an abject failure in many larger countries. Bills have risen, waste, road-works and leakages have got worse and there is a lack of competition as sole contractors control entire regions.
Some governments have had enough. In 2008 Paris municipal authorities took control of their privatised water utilities. Much of France has followed suit and governments in South America and Asia are re-nationalising water. For such a vital resource, it is now becoming ‘en vogue’ to have utilities back under government control and the campaign has noticed this.
The tool the campaign is using is the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), a European Commission scheme which launched on April 1 that allows European citizens to propose legislation. Through an online platform, if 7 million EU citizens (from 7 EU states) sign a petition about almost anything, the commission will have to propose legislation. Its fascinating water was the first thing to be chosen considering access to water isn’t an issue affecting many Europeans.
This was a key point in the Lisbon treaty aiming to reduce the so called ‘democratic deficit’ in Europe. This has been a longstanding and almost clichéd argument and one Brussels has been ducking for too long. Considering most Commissioners are directly appointed and they drive the entire legislative agenda, the EU cannot be called democratic. The bit the public votes for (the European Parliament) is largely seen as just an approval mechanism as they cannot come up with new bills or directives. The EuroParl can debate the issues; debate, scrutinise and approve or reject directives, but they cannot propose them. For most people that is the wrong way round and the opposite for what people are used to in their national parliaments or assemblies.
There are some problems with the ECI, and serious safeguards have been put in place that some have labelled as ‘a get out of jail free card.’ As well as sensible blocks on petitions on issues Brussels can’t affect, the commission can reject petitions that are ‘contrary to EU values’ and ‘frivolous’. Such vague assumptions are worrying and in the coming year people will be forensically watching the commission to make sure they aren’t just blocking inconvenient petitions.
Overall it’s a positive and progressive step for European participatory democracy. Many member states have similar schemes, but none go as far as this scheme which will have real effects on European citizens and any plan to give more power to citizens has to be applauded and encouraged.