Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Resisting water privatisation under austerity

With important victories at the local, national and regional level, the Water Movement provides key lessons for the resistance against the privatisation of public services in Europe, write Satoko Kishimoto and Olivier Petitjean

June 30, 2014
9 min read

Despite explicit opposition from hundreds of thousands of European citizens, the sovereign debt crisis has given new momentum to the privatisation of water services in many European countries. In Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy, the countries hardest hit by the crisis, water privatisation has come back onto the agenda.

The European Commission (as part of the Troika) has insisted on the privatisation of water utilities in Greece and Portugal, which appears to be in violation of the EU’s supposed neutrality on the question of public or private ownership and management of collective water services1. The privatisation programmes are being imposed at a time when there is little appetite for water privatisation among municipalities because of the disappointing experiences throughout Europe and around the world. However, the Troika has taken advantage of the financial crisis to promote privatisation as a solution to the budget troubles faced by European states and municipalities.

Democracy versus privatisation

In 2012 European civil society groups and trade unions called upon Olli Rehn, the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro, to withdraw demands including large-scale privatisation of public services as a condition of rescue loans2. That same year, the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), representing 8 million public services workers, decided to campaign for a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on the right to water.

The ECI is a newly created tool under the Lisbon Treaty allowing European citizens to demand the European Commission bring forward proposals if they can gather the signatures of one million citizens in support. A broad unions-NGOs alliance, Right2Water3, was established and intensive campaigns were organised in many countries. In November 2013, Right2Water became the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative by collecting 1.66 million valid signatures from 28 EU countries. Right2Water carried three demands: ensuring all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation, excluding water services from liberalisation, and that the EU must increase its efforts outside Europe through public-public cooperation.

In February 2014 a public hearing with stakeholders was held in the European Parliament to discuss the demands of the Right2Water citizen committee. At the hearing, many MEPs criticised the Commission for imposing privatisation conditions on crisis-hit countries. After that the Commission released its official response on March 194. Although it has balked at taking any legislative action (as proposed in the ECI), it was forced to admit, grudgingly it seemed, that water is a “public good” and that local governments are ultimately responsible for providing this service. The ECI citizen committee still found this response much too weak and criticised the Commission for its lack of democratic accountability5.

In the meantime, in a major U-turn, EU Commissioner Michel Barnier had announced in June 2013 that water would be excluded from the proposed EU concessions directive. Barnier admitted in a letter6 that this decision was influenced by “the first European Citizens’ Initiative and 1.5 million people signing a petition on water”. The Right2Water ECI is now over, but campaigning continues7. The lessons from the Right2Water ECI are valuable for the movement: grassroots mobilisation made citizens ‘demands politically visible at the European level and this achievement enables us to continue pressuring the Commission for a different set of water policies.

Thessaloniki: Local resistance and European solidarity

The plans for the privatisation of water services in Thessaloniki, decided by the Greek government under pressure from the EU, has sparked strong opposition in the city. Several local mayors want to buy the 51% share in the company that was intended for foreign investors. A group of citizens and unions, ‘Initiative 136’, has even tried to subvert the process by participating in the tender itself. Initiative 136 calls for the transformation of the public water utility EYATH into a cooperative owned by its users8. This ‘citizen buyout’ was also intended to include more democratic and participatory management of the water service. Unfortunately, this original proposition was not accepted by the Greek privatisation agency TAIPED.

Having seen that official political channels do not give them any leverage in the decision-making process, opponents decided to organise a popular referendum on water privatisation in Thessaloniki. This was inspired by similar votes in Italy, Spain, and Germany. Citizens and unions are united under the umbrella of ‘Soste to Nero’ to say No to water privatisation and No to selling off EYATH. Under pressure from their constituents, several local mayors (including Thessaloniki’s) announced their support for the referendum, and Soste to Nero circulated a call for support at European level. EPSU took a lead in coordinating financial donations as well as volunteers to help with the referendum as international observers. The referendum took place on May 18, at the same time as local elections, in spite of last minute obstruction by the Greek government. A total of 218,002 citizens participated in the referendum and 98% of these voters said No to privatisation!9

Suez Environnement, the French multinational, is the principal bidder for the Thessalonian water services along with controversial Israeli firm Mekorot. Organisers hope that the referendum result will persuade them to withdraw from the process. “The people have spoken. We expect the Greek government, the Troika and bidders such as Suez and its Greek partner Ellaktor to listen,” said Jan Willem Goudriaan, EPSU Deputy General Secretary.

Lazio, Italy: alternatives born from resistance

In March 2014, the regional government of Lazio (the region which includes Rome, with a total population of 5.7 million) approved a regional law that declared water is a service of public interest, and thus not subject to compulsory competitive tendering. This is the result of a long and hard-fought campaign backed by a popular petition signed by 37,000 citizens and 40 communes.

Since the Italian population rejected compulsory private sector participation and said no to making a profit from water services in a national referendum in 2011, local campaigns have continued fighting to implement the result at the local level. Against this backdrop, the new law in Lazio was welcomed as a perfect example of how to implement the spirit of the referendum. The law will facilitate the management of water on a not-for-profit basis and encourage municipalities to introduce public participation in decision-making on water management.

A European movement against water privatisation

Water justice struggles in Europe have demonstrated how local popular resistance and European-level strategy can effectively reinforce each other to challenge undemocratic pressures to privatise. Referendums and other forms of popular consultation such as the European Citizens’ Initiative have proved of strategic use in exposing undemocratic austerity policies. Such initiatives also provided an effective channel for new forms of activism oriented towards a re-appropriation of public services by citizens, often in alliance with unions.

Moreover, concrete proposals for how to organise public water in a democratic way are emerging, which provides additional momentum to the resistance to privatisation. Sharing of experiences and mutual support between European cities and local movements has been critical in the successes achieved. Public service networks such as Aqua Publica Europea and ‘public-public partnerships’ offer both a credible alternative to privatisation and a Europe-wide network of support for local resistance movements.

Olivier Petitjean is co-founder and editor of the Multinationals Observatory, an investigative website dedicated to monitoring the impacts of French transnational corporations worldwide. Satoko Kishimoto is the coordinator of the the Reclaiming Public Water network.

This is the second piece of a new TNI series of articles: At the crossroads – Europe’s social movements respond

1. Article 345 of the EU Treaties (ex Article 295 EC) requires the Commission to be neutral on public or private ownership of companies: “The Treaties shall in no way prejudice the rules in Member States governing the system of property ownership.” Article 345 TFEU (ex Article 295 EC)





6.…. The directive would not directly force municipalities to privatise, but could lead to privatisation since municipalities that have some form of private participation in their water supply, even a small amount, would have to offer their water contracts for EU-wide bidding.


8. It has been calculated that each household in Thessaloniki would have to pay 136 euros for a share in the water service, hence the name of the initiative.


Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going