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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.


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