We, EU citizens, definitively made history when we have collected first in the EU history more than 1 million signatures to ensure that water will be provided on a human rights basis to everyone. But will it be enough to reduce the EU’s democratic deficit? Will the Commission listen to us and make real, legally binding follow up measures?
What is the European Citizens Initiative (ECI)?
In order to bring the EU closer to ordinary citizens, one of the rules of the Lisbon Treaty made it possible to collect signatures for a given cause which requires European legislation and the Commission is bound by the Treaties to come out with legal solutions, if such an initiative collects at least 1 million signatures in 7 Member States within a given timeframe.
The legal basis of the citizens’ initiative is set out in Article 11, Paragraph 4 (TEU) and Article 24, paragraph 1 (TFEU). The specific practical arrangements and procedures for launching an ECI are set out in the ECI regulation 211/2011 which is applicable since 1st of April 2012.
Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.
The procedures and conditions required for such a citizens’ initiative shall be determined in accordance with the first paragraph of Article 24 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
Article 24 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)
The European Parliament and the Council, acting by means of regulations in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure, shall adopt the provisions for the procedures and conditions required for a citizens’ initiative within the meaning of Article 11 of the Treaty on European Union, including the minimum number of Member States from which such citizens must come.
Will the ‘Water is a Human Right!’ campaign Shape the EU?
While many of you would say no, it is impossible, forget it, I still remain a believer by saying, yes it could and yes it will. Although I do not say that it is an easy task: a set of detailed conditions makes sure that only relevant initiatives would reach the high treshhold. As Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič highlighted when he met with us, representatives of European NGOs who were behind that campaign that there was fear that this new tool will be abused and he was happy to see that the first successful ECI has choosen water which is essential for European citizens (May I add silently that the possibility of abuse is not excluded and there is a danger that the ECI in the future will be used for strange purposes – such as the recent ‘European Free Vaping Initiative’)
Why is the ‘Water is a Human Right!’ campaign historic?
Because it gave back faith to everybody: it demonstrated that it is possible to collect such a huge amount of signatures. It has chosen an issue which is tangible and part of the everyday life of ordinary citizens. It made it clear that this tool can be used for a good purpose. And finally, it allowed to ordinary citizens to put their own concerns on the table of EU decision makers who simply cannot neglect the democratic will of EU citizens.
Is Water a Human Right?
As regards the demands of that campaign they are simple, fair and understandable. The campaign was very professional: it is fully in line with international obligations such as the UN resolution 64/292 in which the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.
The ‘Water is a human right!’ campaign had three main aims:
1.) The EU institutions and Member States be obliged to ensure that all inhabitants enjoy the right to water and sanitation.
2.) Water supply and management of water resources not be subject to ‘internal market rules’ and that water services are excluded from liberalisation.
3.) The EU increases its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation.
What does this campaign mean for ordinary people in fact?
The water tap cannot be closed if you are not able to pay the bill. In a crisis and austerity hit Europe this can happen sooner and with more EU citizens than you can imagine. Water is essential for human life and a pre-condition for good health – therefore it cannot be regarded as a commodity. Some may say that it is an expensive resource and the same happens with gas and electricity. But it is not the same: life is simply not possible without water. And this is what I call a ‘human rights’ based approach: European citizens have right to water as a basic resource and it should not be subject to usual commercial rules.
What are the next steps – Conclusions
The campaign made history in the EU, let’s have no doubts about it. It filled the biggest Committee room in the European Parliament and Members of the European parliament have shown clear political support. Now, the legal requirements are clear: it is up the Commission to come out with a proposal by 20 March 2014. As far as I can see, there are only two real options the Commission can choose from: either it acknowledges the democratic will of EU citizens and will come out with legally binding measures ensuring that the aims of the campaign will be met or it will take it as a ‘thick box’ exercise and will issue some nice declaration and nothing more. It is impossible to say which choice will it make. But the European Civil society will keep a close eye on the Commission for sure. Alea Iacta est.
I remain at your disposal.
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(Source of the photos made on the spot on 17 February in the Commission & in the European Parliament)