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.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Fighting for Public Water in Europe: The ECI Water is a Human Right.

Jan Willem Goudriaan, General Secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), has written regular updates (see 1, 2 and 3) on where the European Citizens' Initiative  (ECI) Right2Water fits in the broader struggles of the European Water Movement and how it links with the struggle for Another Europe. In this latest guest post, he gives an update following the European Parliament vote on the ECI report.

The ECI Right2Water: where are we now.

The workers gathered in the entrance hall and on the stairways. George, Christos and many others blocked the meeting room. They had been called upon by their union OME-EYDAP.  The union leadership was informed that a delegation of the French multinational company Suez would meet with their bosses on 15 December 2015. The representatives of the French company would indicate their interest in buying shares in the company. This would happen in a secret meeting with management and the Athens water workers were intent on preventing this. And so they did. The Suez staff came and left when seeing the massive resistance their presence caused. The union communicated to the press that it would not give up the struggle to keep the company public. The union members know chasing the Suez types away will not be the end despite earlier victories. The privatisation of the water companies is again on the agenda of the Greek government.

That prospect of Another Europe from Greece.

The situation looked so different in January 2015. The previous year the Thessaloniki water workers had won their referendum against privatisation of EYATH. Their allies, the Athens water workers, won their case in the Greek Supreme Court.  It ruled that the water company EYDAP could not be privatised. Eurogroup President Dijsselbloem, who had welcomed the privatisation of the water companies, suffered a crushing defeat, when the privatisation fund TAIPED said it would not pursue the privatisation of the water companies any more. In an earlier blog post for this website I was cautious. While these were real victories for the Greek movement, the underlying balance of power, including with the Troika, had not changed.

Changing that balance of forces and cementing the victories of the water and other social movements was at stake in the Greek parliamentary elections of 25 January 2015. The progressive party Syriza won by a landslide. Its leader Tsipras was the most popular politician in the country. The party was voted in on an explicitly anti-austerity mandate. Parliamentary Speaker Zoi Konstantopoulou solemnly pledged her support for the implementation of the Human Right to Water in Greek legislation. The Greek water movement had campaigned for this following their success in gaining enough signatures to lift the European Citizens’ Initiative Water is a Human Right over the threshold in Greece. Tsipras supported Right2Water as leader of the European left party. Other representatives of Syriza argued that water should remain outside of the new generation of trade agreements like CETA and TTIP. This opened up the possibility that the Greek government could oppose these treaties. They were controversial with many. EPSU and many others continued to point out the problems not least for water, health and other public services. Excitement was in the air. But it was not to be.

The July 12th deal ends the early optimism.

Following the elections in January, the Greek government sought to negotiate a deal with its creditors, the Troika. The new government programme was to get Greece out of its quagmire, stimulate growth and create jobs. For this austerity needed to end. The country needed debt relief and investment. Reforms of its tax inspection and other services were required to fight the tax evasion, fraud and corruption of the country's financial and economic elite. For many months negotiations continued with the Troika. A deal was reached with the Eurogroup at the end of June 2015, but Tsipras declared that the conditions were not acceptable to the government. He proposed a referendum and Syriza campaigned for a no vote. The Greek people followed the government and overwhelmingly voted No.

Nevertheless, the government was not able to use this mandate in a meaningful way. Just three weeks later, it was forced to agree on new and harsh terms for a fresh injection of money. EPSU commented in a statement that the new bailout terms would mean more hardship for workers and people in Greece. The agreement also underlined that the financial crisis resulted in an economic, social and democratic crisis. The Austerity Treaty of December 2012 and the straight-jacket imposed by successive rules made changing course or even modestly adapting it more difficult. Yanis Varoufakis, the minister of finance, understood this and resigned after trying. He profoundly disagreed with the 12 July deal. He argued that adding more debt would not help Greece. He has detailed the background and reasons for his resignation in many pieces available on his website. The new bail-out terms were further outlined in a new Memorandum of Understanding for Greece.

There is an annex to this MoU relating to the Hellenic Republic Development Asset Fund. This Fund has been set up by previous governments under pressure from the Troika. The annex outlines the companies the Fund needs to sell as part of the commitments to the Troika to get money to reduce its debt and pay off creditors. The partial privatisation of the Thessaloniki and Athens water companies figures prominently in the plan (p.24).  This deal with the Eurogroup meant the end of that prospect of hope and aspiration the Syriza government had represented. It confirmed the grip of the Eurogroup's austerity regime. And that, according to the now ex-minister of Finance Varoufakis, was the intent of the Eurogroup deal with Greece. There is only one way, the austerity way. Or so they say.

Photo by Sergiu Bacioiu

Struggles continue at European level …

As the ex-Greek minister is exploring the possibilities of establishing a European political movement to democratize the Eurozone and European Union, inspiration can be taken from the struggles of Europe's water movement. At the European level it won a significant victory when the European Parliament's plenary approved the Lynn Boylan report on the ECI Water is a Human Right on 8 September 2015. The first version of her report won significant support in the Parliament's Environment Committee after supporters of Right2Water had sent thousands of messages to MEPs. EPSU affiliates and many others in the European Water Movement had contacts with MEPs. It paid off. 

The draft welcomed the demands of the ECI Right2Water and the support of all progressive forces in that Committee. Moreover, a handful of individual Christian-democrat and liberal members had supported key amendments to the report on 25 June. The support of the whole European left (GUE/NLG, Greens, S&D) stayed strong, even when the report faced fierce opposition from the right, when it introduced several amendments and an entire alternative motion. Clearly, the aim had been to defeat the progressive parts and make the report toothless. This did not work and the report was adopted.

The European Parliament is critical of the privatisation of water companies. It linked this with the austerity measures of the European Commission and Troika.

‘18.  Calls on the Commission to recognise the importance of the human right to water and sanitation and of water as a public good and a fundamental value for all EU citizens and not as a commodity; expresses its concern that since 2008, due to the financial and economic crisis and to the austerity policies which have increased poverty in Europe and the number of low-income households, an increasing number of people have been facing difficulties in paying their water bills and that affordability is becoming a matter of growing concern; rejects water cut-offs and the enforced switching-off of the water supply, and asks Member States to put an immediate end to these situations when they are due to socioeconomic factors in low-income households; (...).’

It notes that the European Commission is not neutral as regards ownership.  Parliament 

‘21.  Stresses that the Commission’s alleged neutrality regarding water ownership and management is in contradiction with the privatisation programmes imposed on some Member States by the Troika’. This applies, of course, directly to the situation in Greece described above. Parliament draws attention to the result of many local struggles recognising the importance of returning companies into municipal ownership.

46.  Recalls that the option of re-municipalising water services should continue to be ensured in the future without any restriction, and may be kept under local management if so chosen by the competent public authorities; recalls that water is a basic human right that should be accessible and affordable to all; highlights that Member States have a duty to ensure that water is guaranteed to all regardless of the operator, while making sure that the operators provide safe drinking water and improved sanitation;  

The report also argues that water should be excluded from trade agreements like CETA and TTIP.  The European Water Movement's analysis of how the EU-Canada trade agreement would impact on water services makes abundantly clear why this is important. Parliament therefore

47.  Stresses that the special character of water and sanitation services, such as production, distribution and treatment, makes it imperative that they be excluded from any trade agreements the EU is negotiating or considering; urges the Commission to grant a legally binding exclusion for water services, sanitation services and wastewater disposal services in the ongoing negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trade in Services Agreement; stresses that all future trade and investment agreements should include clauses on genuine access to drinking water for the people of the third country to which the agreement pertains in line with the Union’s long-lasting commitment to sustainable development and human rights, and that genuine access to drinking water for the people of the third country to which the agreement pertains must be a precondition for any future free trade agreements;

EPSU and Right2Water welcomed the vote. The ECI has the support not only of a broad alliance of organisations and 1.9 million citizens but also the overall majority of the European Parliament. It is now up to the European Commission to review its Communication of March 2014 and propose legislation to recognise the Right2Water in the EU.  EPSU and the European Water Movement have written to the Commissioner responsible for water issues, Karmenu Vella, demanding action. We will have to keep up the pressure to get meaningful initiatives.

... and at local level

The water movement also made progress at the local level. The Irish Water Movement is very noticeable. Its demonstrations have brought hundreds of thousands to the streets in support of public water. New protests are planned for 23 January 2016. The issue will be dominating the Irish elections expected in spring 2016. The Irish water movement is morphing into a political movement. With the usual political parties like Finna Fail and Fine Gael forecasted to have less than 50 per cent of the vote, there is a chance of change. 

The Spanish political groups linked with the progressive party Podemos won landslide victories in the Spanish local elections of 24 May 2015. Ahora Madrid will stop the privatisation of water company Canal Isabel II. Barcelona en ComĂș will explore how to return water services to municipal ownership. And also in Portugal there is the prospect of change and resistance to privatisation. After the October 2015 elections a progressive coalition is in government. And this despite the resistance of the Portuguese President. He proclaimed that there can be no change in the Eurozone. Infamously he said “This is the worst moment for a radical change to the foundations of our democracy. After we carried out an onerous programme of financial assistance, entailing heavy sacrifices, it is my duty, within my constitutional powers, to do everything possible to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets”. The words of Cavaco Silva underline the democratic problem in the Eurozone as much as the July 2015 deal, imposed on the Greek people, did.

Not only are Greek water workers fighting back against the unjust Eurogroup agreement. All Greek workers have shown continued resistance to the measures the Syriza government is now executing.  During an EPSU mission we met with George, Anthony and other colleagues of the Greek union GENOP-DEH. They represent workers in the Public Power Company PPC.  The Troika has imposed the privatisation of part of this company: the transmission network ADMIE. The Eurogroup deal says that the Greek government should "proceed with the privatisation of the electricity transmission network operator (ADMIE), unless replacement measures can be found that have equivalent effect on competition, as agreed by the Institutions. This frankly is nonsense. The ownership of the transmission network has little to do with promoting competition. The proposal goes against the EU Directives. It does show that the EU is not neutral as regards to the question of ownership. The Greek unions and Syriza have proposed alternatives in line with the directives, but they have been rejected by the Troika. It becomes clear that what the Troika is really after is the money. It thereby ignores that especially in a competitive market a state owned transmission network is probably the best guarantee of the public interest.  

A source of inspiration

The water struggles are bringing many different groups together. As water is the source of life, these struggles have wider appeal. If given a choice, people do not think water services should be run based on commercial principles. And they are prepared to defend and fight for public water. The same is true for health and education, and many other public services. Keeping these services out of trade agreements is one of the reasons this movement brings so many together.

We know that our local, national, European and even global struggles are connected. The ECI Right2Water was one way to give expression to this awareness of how these struggles are connected. It has been successful. But as Andreas Bieler wrote in his assessment, we need to consolidate this success and build on it further.

Jan Willem Goudriaan is General Secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU). 

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