The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Greece under the Troika: colonialism and resistance in the 21st century - the struggle for public water.

When in May 2014 98 per cent of Thessaloniki’s citizens voted against the privatisation of their municipal water company EYATH and the Greek constitutional court, the Council of State, ruled out the privatisation of Athens’ water company EYDAP as unconstitutional shortly afterwards, the public ownership of these two companies seemed to have been secured (see Resisting water privatisation in Greece and Portugal). And yet, when the Syriza government signed the third bailout agreement of Greece in July 2015, the privatisation of water was back on the agenda. In this blog post, I will report on the struggle over public water since July 2015, based on a set of semi-structured interviews with water activists in Thessaloniki and Athens in April 2018. 

Colonialism in the 21st century

As part of the bailout agreement in July 2015, the Syriza government had to agree to the establishment of the Hellenic Company for Assets and Participation (HCAP), also referred to as the Superfund. Approved by the Greek parliament in September 2016, this Superfund includes all major public companies including the water companies of Thessaloniki and Athens. The government claims that transferring 51 per cent of these companies into the Superfund would not contradict the legal ruling of the Council of State that privatisation was unconstitutional. On the contrary, it is claimed that the public ownership of these companies would be secured for the foreseeable future as a result of this manoeuvre. As activists made clear to me, however, when looked at more closely, this is highly questionable.

First, while it is correct that three members of the five member Supervisory Board are appointments by the Greek government, they require the approval of the European Stability Mechanism and the Troika, consisting of European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF. Moreover, two members are appointed by the European Stability Mechanism, one of whom is the Director of the Supervisory Board. Here, only the Greek finance minister has to countersign the appointment. Considering that the two external members of the Board in practice enjoy a veto over any decisions taken, it is clear that Greek economic sovereignty is severely undermined.

This is compounded by the fact that the Superfund is given the task to generate profits, the distribution of which is highly circumscribed. 50 per cent of the profits are earmarked for paying off Greek national debts, while the remaining 50 per cent are due to be invested in the companies of HCAP as well as the Greek economy more generally. Of course, these investment decisions are subject to the control by the two external, non-Greek members of the Supervisory Board.

The prospect of privatisation looms large, because the Superfund ‘as mentioned in Article 184 para. 4, “does not belong to the public or broader public sector, in the way that each is defined”’ (SAVE GREEK WATER 2016). Companies in the Superfund are not in the direct ownership of the state. ‘The Fund and its assets will be under professional management at arm's length from the State’ (European Stability Mechanism 2018: 40). And while privatisation is not the only stated method of the Superfund, it is clearly part of its tools. As the Commission responded to a question by the European Parliament in August 2017, ‘HCAP will fulfil its purpose via monetising the assets it owns through privatisation and other means, one possible example of the latter being a constant dividend stream from the assets’ (European Commission 2017).

Support for public water by the Svolou neighbourhood project in Thessaloniki. 

‘This is the most radical economic experiment since the early 1970s under Pinochet in Chile of how the economy of a country is put under the control of international organisations’, argues Stefanos (not real name), a Thessaloniki water activist. ‘We are being colonised by outside forces’ agrees Eleni (not real name), who has spent the last six years of her live fighting against the privatisation of Greek water. ‘We are no longer in charge of our own economic affairs’.

Continuing struggles of resistance

I asked my interviewees about the turnaround of the Syriza government in July 2015, when it accepted the new bailout agreement with its draconian conditions only one week after an overwhelming ‘Oxi’ referendum against further austerity (The Guardian, 5 July 2015). Some point out that they had never had much hope in Syriza in the first place. There was always a likelihood that they would simply become another social democratic party. Others, however, speak about a big shock, a massive disillusionment. It is clear now for Greek activists that they cannot hope for change through the political system of representative democracy.

And yet, water activists have by no means given up. From the time of the referendum in Thessaloniki in May 2014, there has always been a large alliance of different groups opposed to water privatisation. This has resulted in two initiatives, currently running in parallel. First, there is the campaign ‘Not also the water’. It includes the trade union of the Thessaloniki water company EYATH, the social movement SOS te to Nero, the association of the 11 affected municipalities, SOS Halkidiki and Callisto, an environmental organisation. Moreover, it is also supported by the Water Warriors assembly. It thus brings together the water workers with consumer interests, local municipalities as well as environmental concerns. Two key demands are on its agenda. First, it focuses on organising 100 events around the fourth anniversary of the 2014 referendum with the objective to inform citizens and to encourage them to become actively involved in the campaign. Second, the alliance emphasises the importance of including the human right to water into the Greek constitution. Additionally, there is currently a court case lodged with the Council of State against the transfer of 51 per cent of the shares of EYATH and EYDAP into the Superfund, a ruling on which is expected in the middle of May this year.

Poster by the Water Warriors

Another alliance of mainly cooperatives has formed around the group K136, which aims at buying up 24 per cent of the shares of the Thessaloniki water company together with the municipalities as a first step towards transforming the company into a full blown cooperative (K136 2018). 25 per cent of the shares of EYATH are currently traded on the stock exchange, 51 per cent are in the Superfund, while the final 24 per cent are now due for open sale and the government has made clear that this could also include municipalities as buyers. It is those 24 per cent, K136 is focusing on. Two campaigns in parallel are to some extent weakening the resistance. Yet, there is an agreement over stopping the privatisation of water. The differences are only over how the company should be run, once privatisation has been stopped. While the alliance around ‘Not also the water’ leans towards more citizens’ and workers’ participation in the running of the public company, K136 wants to turn EYATH into a cooperative.

Slums on the outskirts of Athens

Illegal water connections in West Attica

In Athens, Yannis and Panagiotis (not their real names) show me around in the region of West Attica. Formerly a productive industrial centre, West Attica is now one of the poorest areas in the Greek capital, an industrial wasteland with people living in slums on the outskirts of the city working as waste pickers. Here, water connections are often illegal and nobody pays for the supply. Yannis and Panagiotis are members of SEKES, one of the trade union groups within the trade union of the Athens water company. SEKES was established in 2012 as a hybrid of traditional union and social movement. Its main objective is not only to represent the more narrow interests of workers at the workplace, but also to serve the community. Members of SEKES understand themselves as workers as well as citizens. They regard water as an essential commons, which everyone needs to survive. It must not be privatised.

Athens water aqueduct

Yannis casts his eyes over the large water aqueduct ensuring the supply of five million citizens in Athens with high quality drinking water. There is a clear sense of pride about what can be achieved from within a public company. Panagiotis makes clear that here in West Attica, no water worker will follow orders to disconnect people from the supply, because they cannot pay their bills. ‘In a starving society, it is our obligation not to cut such essential services as water’, he declares. The economic situation in Greece may be dire. The government may have caved in to creditors’ demands. Nevertheless, Greek activists have not succumbed to the pressure. The fight goes on and water privatisation is by far not a done deal yet. 

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

8 May 2018

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