The impetus for the Citizens’ Initiative “right2water” came from two developments. Firstly, the fact that several EU Member States abstained when the human right to water was acknowledged by a Resolution of the UN General Assembly. Secondly, the repeated attempts by the European Commission to liberalise the water sector, most recently in the context of the directive on concessions. We wanted to put a stop to this. Water is a public good, not a tradable commodity.
So water supply is not an issue for the single market. It should be organised on a national and public basis, with the aim of genuinely providing all citizens with access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation. It was the member unions of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) who initiated the European Citizens’ Initiative for the human right to access to clean water and basic sanitation and who coordinate it. In Germany, the public services union ver.di took the lead.
“Right2water” is the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative – it has succeeded in gathering over a million signatures from more than seven EU countries within the stipulated time period. The first hurdle was cleared half a year before the deadline (in February 2013): by that point, 1 million people across the EU had given their support to the ECI. Only three months later the second condition was met: the required minimum number of signatories was reached in more than seven countries. On 13th September, the day the signatures were handed over, altogether thirteen countries had exceeded the minimum number and there were almost 1.9 million signatures. We therefore had almost double the number of signatures required, and almost double the number of countries where the minimum number of signatories had been reached.
A success already: water will remain a public good
“Right2water” has already achieved significant political successes before the one-year deadline has passed. When the number of signatures exceeded a million, both the European Commission and the Federal German government signalled for the first time a willingness to talk about exemptions for the water sector in the directive on concessions. It is thanks to the immensely strong engagement of citizens in the Initiative that on the 25th June in the negotiations at EU level over the concessions directive, the water sector was removed from the scope of the directive. A major success, which came in response to the Initiative’s call not to liberalise water resources management.
After the success of “right2water” has been formally certified in December, following the verification of all the signatures by the national authorities, the European Parliament and the European Commission will invite the initiators to a hearing. At this hearing we intend to put forward very detailed proposals for EU legislation which are designed to guarantee the human right to water and to provide lasting protection for its status as a public good. The Commission has to give a response to these proposals in the form of a communication by March 2014. Only then will we know what impact this instrument for citizens’ participation can really have. But regardless of the Commission’s response, the candidates for the elections to the European Parliament in May 2014 will similarly have to take a stand on the demands made by “right2water”. We are therefore furthering a public European debate on this issue – a second political benefit of the Citizens’ Initiative.
What accounts for the success of “right2water”?
The formal hurdles which have to be cleared by a European Citizens’ Initiative, as introduced in April 2012, are high; so not many people will be able to use the ECI successfully. The “right2water” initiative was so successful only because the initiators were able to make use of pan-European structures and to reach out to the broader populations of the Member States through both officials and supporters of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU). The solid financial footing was also a prerequisite for the campaign. In Germany, which provided the lion’s share of the signatures with over 1,38 million, the strong support of NGOs (BUND, attac, BBU, DGB, GIB, Grüne Liga and many more) and of some industry associations was extremely important, as they spread the concern behind the ECI throughout society at large.
Another important point is the topic of water itself, with which people generally have a positive emotional connection. That’s why many people decided not only to sign for themselves, but also to get involved and to collect signatures. In Germany, the fact that the topic was picked up by the popular media was important.
There are many hurdles to be cleared
Initiators without access to already functioning pan-European structures will have great difficulty clearing both formal hurdles – one million signatures from at least seven countries (with minimum numbers in each) within one year. This can be seen in the 16 ECIs currently running. Only the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion campaign – one likewise backed by an organisation with a lot of money and members – has any prospect of success.
At the same time, a year is a long time to keep a campaign going on a voluntary basis. What makes it even more difficult is that the different national time-cycles for issues on the public agenda represent a significant obstacle to achieving the required minimum number of signatures in seven countries. Another big problem is the error rate in the paper signatures. For data protection reasons, the lists cannot simply be laid out in public and – also in view of the scope of the individual data collected – considerable help and support is therefore necessary. Many people need to have the difference between the online petitions of the many very different public platforms (such as change.org) and the European Citizens’ Initiative explained to them. Finally, not only does the subject matter of the ECI have to be European in content terms, but it needs to actually concern citizens across the EU sufficiently to make them get involved. The ECI initiators therefore need to target their public relations work across the entire media landscape – not only the political sector but the cultural sector too, and at regional as well as national level.
Conclusion: what can a European Citizen’s Initiative actually achieve?
If the topic of the ECI is one which is currently the subject of legislation in the EU then the initiative can influence the process before its conclusion, as was the case with “right2water” with regard to the concessions directive. The strong support for “right2water” in civil society (in Germany) succeeded in persuading many local councils and Land parliaments as well as the Bundestag (lower house) and the Bundesrat (upper house) to put the issue of water as a public good on their agendas. All of them apart from the Bundestag passed resolutions in support of the initiative.
Many citizens have taken an interest for the first time in how their water services are provided. Many of them are now actively calling for protection for the good public water services in Germany. Such involvement in public affairs is good for our democracy and has also contributed to the development of a European public sphere. We have been very encouraged to see how many people want something from Europe and are prepared to get involved.
This article was originally published by Heinrich Boell Stiftung.