Anne-Marie Perret, president of the Right2Water Citizens Committee:
Keep water in public hands
We want the Commission to switch from the rules of the market to a vision towards human rights
Maria Koleva, Brussels
27 February, 2014
Close-up: Anne-Marie Perret has been the president of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) since 2005. Previously, she was the vice-president of the same organisation. A unionist, coming from civil service, she worked many years as a Federal secretary of Force Ouvriere - Fonctionnaires, France. Ms Perret holds a master's degree in Spanish from the University of Nanterre and a certificate for English from Cambridge. Since 2012 she has lead the Right2Water Citizens Committee, the first ever successful European citizens' initiative.- Ms Perret, what provoked this particular initiative in view of the fact that nobody in Europe questions that water is a universal right?- I think that from a European point of view the main problem is that the citizens and the EU institutions need to realise that water is not a commodity, but is really a common good, a universal good and a universal right. Too many politicians still consider it as a commodity. We want to change this vision. Public authorities are aware that water is a very big issue for them and for the consumers. Even in Europe there are people who are still excluded, for example some Roma communities in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but also in Spain, where distribution companies do not hesitate to cut off the water of households with financial troubles. For the so-called countries 'in programme', the main problem comes from the 'Troika' because they are pushing towards privatisation. In Greece, for instance, some French private operators that act as multinationals want to privatise the water companies of Thessaloniki and Athens. We insist these companies to remain in public hands. Generally, the Commission says "we are not for the privatisation of water", but as a matter of fact, when they act with the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a 'Troika', they are recommending the privatisation of the water sector. And that is what happened in Portugal and in Greece, mainly. According to WHO data, about one million Europeans do not have access to quality water and nearly 8 million lack access to proper sanitation.- Why did the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) start precisely this campaign and not, for example, a campaign to boost the right to health care for all Europeans?- Because it was very important to put at the top of the agenda for the Commission, for Europe and for the whole world, water as a universal right. We think that if water can really be considered as a human right, health care will come because water is one of the major elements for health. We will see whether we will start a campaign for health care later on. It needs a lot of energy and support, a lot of people involved in this kind of ECI. Also, it takes time and money to get the signatures.- In connection with this, where did the initiative receive financial support from?- Mainly our federation helped us, our own unions in each of our countries. Of course, one ECI needs more energy than money, but for the website and to popularise the initiative we were in need of some kind of budget. Also, we received support from NGOs and they worked for free for this human right to be implemented. We had massive support from the sides of Germany, Belgium, Slovakia, Lithuania, Spain, Italy and Greece. There was not so much support from my own country - France, for example. From the Commission we are getting subsidies for other programmes, but of course not in the case of the ECI.- Could you present your partners in the initiative Right2Water?- Our EPSU partners for the citizens' initiative were a lot of organisations such as the European Anti-Poverty Network, Women in Europe for a Common Future, and also the European Public Health Alliance, the European Trade Union Confederation, the European Environmental Bureau, the Social Platform, the Public Services International and Aqua Publica Europea.- What kinds of problems did you face during the ECI campaign and what changes in the procedures are necessary for the future?- The main problem came from the online signing, and some people refused to sign as they had to give their personal data. So, we demanded Commissioner Sefcovic, who is in charge of the ECI, to lighten the burden in this respect and to give an appropriate solution to the problem for citizens to give the number of their ID card or passport. It was also very hard to gather enough signatures because it was the first initiative and a lot of people in our countries did not know about this new kind of petition. We received a very friendly welcome from the European ombudsman and we discussed with him these problems as well.- You said that water is not a commodity but water scarcity and droughts are not rare even in Europe. If not by the price, how can its irrational consumption be controlled?- First of all, it is a problem of education. Of course it is not a commodity, it is a common public good and it is a heritage of human kind and it has to be protected. As citizens we have to be taught about drought, about sustainable water resources management and the protection of water and a good level of sanitation for our own health. This remains in the hands of our states, our governments and our public authorities to make sure that water as a scarce resource has to be protected. We are not in favour of a gratuitous supply of water just because it is a scarce resource and it has a cost. And this cost has to be shared by the citizens but at a reasonable and affordable price according to their needs, not those of the water provider companies.- Is it acceptable according to you if a basic limit for water consumption per person is introduced and over it the prices are liberalised?- It is a big issue and according to me it is too early to start this kind of discussion. Concerning the rational consumption, as I said, it is a question of education and we have to be conscious and go step by step. But we demand first of all for no more liberalisation and to get affordable tariffs for the consumers. We also say, "Stop the exclusion of citizens on the right to water!" Too many people have been excluded so far and we have to solve this before, perhaps, we get to some kind of limit that, if exceeded, one has to pay extra for its consumption. We certainly are not at this stage. First of all, it has to be accepted as a human right, no liberalisation, and water and sanitation of good quality for everyone.- The initiative is against liberalisation of the water supply. What is the suggestion then for the EU countries that have already privatised these services?- This is the case in my own country, France, where more than 70% of the water supply is in the hands of private operators. We cannot change the things from one day to another. There is a directive on concessions and public authorities can choose their operators. But if they choose a private operator, they have to control and monitor them in terms of tariffs, in terms of quality and in terms of guaranteed access to all.- What legislative actions do you expect from the Commission?- We have three demands. The first is that the Commission is to make a piece of legislation and to write down in a new directive that water is a human right and all citizens in Europe should receive good water and sanitation. Our second demand is to stop the liberalisation of water services, it must be kept in public hands and it must be kept out of TAFTA/TTIP trade agreements as well. And the third one is to make a bigger effort to achieve universal access to water and sanitation all over the world. We want the Commission to change its vision and to switch from the rules of the market to a vision towards human rights. It is a kind of revolution. There are two directives - a framework directive from 2000 and the drinking water directive. We think that these two directives could be good examples that could be included in a new piece of legislation. During our meeting with Commissioner Sefcovic and the Commission's DGs, we also asked for the availability of good statistics on water and sanitation because currently the only statistics we have come from WHO. We have Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, and we think that they should perform a relevant survey about Europe on this issue.- Do you think that the voice of the initiative was heard during the public hearing held in the European Parliament in Brussels a week ago?- We received considerable support from members of the Parliament from different political groups and this was very encouraging. This hearing was organised by the Parliament's environment committee and three other committees. Many MEPs backed our message with the three main demands. Commissioner Sefcovic and senior representatives of several DGs also took part. The biggest room in the House was full of people during the whole discussion that lasted three and a half hours. The Commission now has until 20 March to get back to us with a response and a proposal for the implementation of the initiative.- You are not a politician, but what would you answer if someone accused you of populism?- It is not populism. We are using the tool provided by the European Commission to have our voices heard. It is the Commission that gives this chance to the citizens in Europe, and we use it for the world as well to have their right to water and sanitation. That is not populism, that is solidarity.- What actions can the EU take on a global level according to you?- When we speak about access to water on a global level it is also about the international cooperation implemented by the Commission - health programmes in African countries, Asian countries and countries in Latin America. The problem is that some of the budgets for such programmes have been cut in the current European budget.- Just to make something clear about the collected signatures. During the hearing, 1.68 million signatures were mentioned, but on the website of the initiative there are 1.88 million. Where does this difference come from?- It is a matter of the validation of the signatures. We have collected more than 1.88 million signatures, but through the validation of national authorities we reduced this number to 1.68 million. We stopped the collection of signatures in September and the validations came later.- Have you received any negative comments about the initiative from any private water companies so far?- Not directly, except a remark made by Gerard Payen, president of AquaFed, the International Federation of Private Water Operators, during the previous hearing in the European Parliament organised by the sub-committee for human rights and the committee for cooperation and development. Through some deputies we also heard some remarks coming from the business side.