By Kevin Callinan and Jan Willem Goudriaan
The decision of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services to recommend a referendum on enshrining public ownership of Irish Water in the Constitution was big news for the European water movement. For us, this was a huge encouragement for the many local and national groups fighting the privatisation of water services across the continent.
It followed on the heels of the Slovenian Parliament’s decision to introduce an amendment, guaranteeing the right to water, into the country’s constitution. Today [Wednesday 22nd March] is World Water Day, an occasion for us to celebrate the huge contribution that decent water services make to public health and quality of life, and to highlight the opposition to privatisation that’s growing throughout Europe.
People in Ireland and elsewhere are making it clear that water services should remain in public hands.
The concern that water services could be liberalised through trade agreements, like the CETA deal just agreed by the EU and Canada, motivated many workers to protest. And it mobilized Irish and European trade unions to start a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on the right to water.
Attracting nearly two million signatures from across the EU, this became the first ever successful ECI, effectively placing the issue on the EU’s legislative agenda at the behest of its citizens. The European Parliament then fully supported the ECI demands in an opinion piloted by Irish MEP Lynn Boylan.
The European Commission responded, as it had to. But it failed to bring forward the legislation sought by unions and the European water movement.
Despite the clear message delivered directly by citizens through the ECI, and by their elected representatives in the Parliament, the European Commission fails to listen. In the case of Greece, where people rejected water privatisation, the Eurogroup has been forcing the government to sell shares in the Athens and Thessaloniki water companies.
World Water Day is also an opportunity to ponder the extensive research that underlines why private water companies want to stay on the pitch and make huge profits from what is a public good and a human right.
The University of Greenwich Public Services International Research Unit, which has undertaken extensive work on the issue, says public ownership is the right model for delivering quality water and waste services not least as public authorities can source cheaper loans than private corporations, and because the profit motive pushes up the price of water delivered by multinational private companies by as much as 10%.
Another drawback of privatisation that gets scant attention is that financial and other risks are never transferred to the private sector when lucrative contracts change hands. The quality of the water in our taps is put at risk. Public authorities remain responsible. But private companies can simply walk away, without sanction, when things go wrong.
On top of all this, the European Commission highlighted in 2014 that private water and waste contacts are a potential source of corruption.
These are the reasons why local authorities in European countries like France, which risked costly experiments in water privatisation, have been bringing services back into public ownership. The Portuguese city of Mafra followed suit after years of rising bills for water users.
The Irish people have made crystal clear their desire to see water and waste water services remain in public ownership. Their instinct is supported by the overwhelming results of research that shows privatisation is a bad choice.
Ireland has the support of Europe’s trade unions and the broader water movement, which is connecting the resistance to privatisation across European borders.
Kevin Callinan is Deputy General Secretary of IMPACT trade union. Jan Willem Goudriaan is General Secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU).