EU studies citizens' water campaign in democracy drive

Water tap Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The right to water requires better protection in the EU, trade unions say

A grassroots initiative to protect the quality of Europe's drinking water and stop it being privatised has got on to the agenda of EU lawmakers in Brussels.

It is the first European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) to reach that stage, the European Commission says.

There are strict rules for such mass initiatives - and the EU is not obliged to enshrine such a proposal in law, even if it clears all the hurdles.

An ECI requires more than one million signatures in at least seven countries.

The water campaign, called Right2Water, was given a hearing with the European Commission and European Parliament on Monday, so that the organisers could present their case.

Right2Water was set up by a European trade union federation, EPSU, which claims to represent the interests of eight million public service workers across Europe.

On its website the campaign says the management of water resources should "not be subject to 'internal market rules'" and should be "excluded from liberalisation".

Right2Water collected nearly 1.9 million signatures of support.

Pressure on Brussels

Stephen Tindale, an analyst at an EU-focused think-tank, the Centre for European Reform, said the ECI mechanism was a useful way to put an issue on the EU's agenda.

The mechanism was launched in April 2012, as an effort to empower European citizens and encourage direct democracy.

"It requires the Commission to meet groups, consider the issue and give a response, but it won't necessarily lead to a change in policy," Mr Tindale told the BBC.

He said Right2Water's desire to exempt water supplies from liberalisation "won't go anywhere, because the Commission regards it as its primary function to promote the single market".

The Commission, which drafts EU laws, has to give a full, formal response to the initiative by 20 March, Commission spokesman Antonio Gravili told the BBC.

Right2Water "is the first to come to us with enough signatures validated by member states," he said.

The Commission's response will require the approval of all 28 commissioners. There were various options, Mr Gravili said. For example, "it could be yes to parts of the proposal, or yes but not by legislative means".

Two other ECIs are likely to be considered by the Commission soon. One is called One of Us, which is a campaign urging the EU to ban "the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health". Such a ban would have a big impact on stem cell research in Europe.

The other initiative, called Stop Vivisection, aims to stop EU funding for animal experimentation.

'Bottom-up democracy'

Ordinary EU citizens can also raise issues directly with the European Parliament through petitions, but Mr Tindale said ECIs could have a bigger impact on the EU agenda.

"Just having a debate in the European Parliament doesn't achieve much, but getting something considered by the Commission has potential," he said.

Mr Gravili called the ECI a successful tool to encourage bottom-up initiatives - "citizens telling us what's important to them, getting it on to the agenda at European level".

He called it a form of "transnational participatory democracy which has never been done before at such a level".

Even rejected ECIs were important, he said, because "they encourage people to organise across borders, on things they are passionate about".

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