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Right2Water Citizens’ Initiative Gets Unsatisfactory Response: A Failure For Participation in the EU?

BY Antonella Napolitano | Wednesday, March 26 2014

The Right2Water campaigners [Flickr: gruenebayern (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

"Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity!"

These are not slogans from a street protest, but the title of a petition that recently gathered 1.6 million online signatures among European citizens and was presented to the European Commission earlier this year.

This was also the first official effort of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), a petition instrument created by the EU in order to give citizens an opportunity to make the EU institutions pay attention to issues they care about.

The petition advocates for global access to water and sanitation and fights against the liberalization of water services. “We invite the European Commission to propose legislation implementing the human right to water and sanitation as recognized by the United Nations, and promoting the provision of water and sanitation as essential public services for all,” reads the main message.

The campaign was promoted by Right2Water, a group of trade unions (representing 8 million workers in public services), together with a number of anti-poverty and public health organizations.

But, since the European Commission issued an official response that proved non-committal and unsatisfactory to the Right2Water group, the issue at hand is not just about water but also about the effectiveness of the ECI itself.

A controversial measure to increase participation

Aimed at increasing participation and direct democracy, the ECI was introduced by the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, a treaty that is part of the constitutional basis of the European Union.

A Citizens' Initiative requires the collection of one million signatures (0.2% of the EU population) from at least seven EU countries in one year.

But “vox populi” is far from actually becoming part of the legislative process. Unlike similar initiatives (the Finnish Citizens’ Initiative, for instance), there is no obligation on behalf of the European Commission to turn the content of an ECI into a law.

The European Commission has three months to examine the initiative and meet with the organizers, but it is only committed to issue a formal response.

The organizers will also have the chance to present the content of the petition to the European Parliament in a public hearing.

The campaign itself should be a way to pressure the European institutions, at least that is what was argued during the long and controversial process that led to the creation of the initiative.

So what happened in this first attempt at implementing this participatory process? Apparently not enough, according to the petition’s promoting group Right2Water.

Right2Water acknowledged the positive aspects of the document issued by the European Commission, but showed that it was not impressed with their non-committal response.

“We certainly welcome the fact that the support of people for our Citizen's Initiative led to the exclusion of water and sanitation services from the Concessions Directive. However, the Commission’s Communication makes no commitment to explicitly exclude these services from trade negotiations,” the group pointed out on their campaign website. The Concessions Directive, issued in January 2014, regulates partnerships between the public sector and mostly private companies that provide public services like water distribution and waste disposal.

“We should not exclude water from all internal markets because we need rules to ensure the quality of water and to protect consumers,” replied French MEP Michel Barnier, Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, in a video that appeared on Debating Europe, a website aimed at fostering debate between Europe’s citizens and politicians.

The Right2Water's Citizen's Initiative aims to prevent liberalization of EU water services, such as through trade agreements like those currently being discussed between the EU and Canada and the EU and United States.

According to Jan Willem Goudriaan, vice president of the ECI Right2Water, the European Commission’s official response lacks ambition. “I regret that there is no proposal for legislation recognizing the human right to water,” he said in the press release that the Right2Water group published after receiving the EU response.

Are European Citizens’ Initiative a waste of time, then?

“Direct democracy might sound appealing to citizens, especially in time of a low level of public trust in governments and politicians. The ECI, though, does not seem bound to have a strong impact on EU policies”, I wrote in an earlier article on the potential of ECI to shape a political debate.

After a number of initiatives in 2013, dubbed “the European Year of Citizens,” and two months before the election of a new European Parliament, almost every politicians is praising the power of citizens and committing to a new course of enhancing participation through technology.

In the past few years, however, the only massive game-changer has been the 2012 mobilization against ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, whose opposition gained momentum and led to massive street protests all over Europe from February to June 2012. The European Parliament eventually rejected the agreement in July of the same year.

“The Internet can mobilize in a short period of time quite a lot of people [...] democracy will have to adapt to that," said Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, while commenting on the mobilization around ACTA (a treaty which he supported), just two months before ECI became effectively a legal petition tool.

In times of electoral campaign, it might be easier to find politicians willing to commit to an issue: as of today, four out of five candidates for European Commission President have committed to implementing the Human Right to Water legislation requested by the Right2Water Citizens' Initiative.

At the moment, though, it looks like EU politicians may need more time to adapt to the tech-enabled citizen mobilization tools. Even the ones they created themselves.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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