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  

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite