In the United Kingdom, profiteering water companies are raising charges in excess of inflation at a time when they are already recording high rates of profit, claiming that their profits are down because so many customers can’t pay their bills. I am not the first to point out that raising the cost of water seems an odd way to deal with the fact that people can’t afford to pay for it at the existing price, reminiscent of the old debtors’ prisons where they’d lock you away for not paying your debts, thereby making it impossible for you to earn the money to pay them.
A few years ago I wrote a book on the subject of water privatisation with a left Member of the European Parliament, Kartika Liotard. In Poisoned Spring: The Eu and Water Privatisation (Pluto Press, 2009) we came to the same conclusion that the problem isn’t so much profiteering by this or that private water company, but the whole principle of private ownership of the supply of the substance most vital to our existence.
Access to water has been declared a human right by the United Nations, and time and again when privatisation has been carried out, private companies have shown themselves incapable of ensuring such access. Unfortunately, the European Commission has either failed to notice this, or simply couldn’t care less. Water may be the source of life, but to the Commission, it is primarily a potential source of profits for the corporate capital in whose interests it runs the EU. Though most of the world’s water supply remains in public ownership, the European Union’s unelected executive in Brussels has dedicated itself, both within and outside the EU, to ensuring that this regrettable situation does not persist.
Liotard and I also warned in our book that although four years ago, when it was published, the fight against the water privateers had scored a number of remarkable successes, they would lick their wounds and return, when the moment came, with renewed vigour. That moment was supplied by the euro-crisis, which allowed the Troika – a body comprising the Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – not only to force huge cuts in public spending on the worst afflicted countries, but to make them sell off their state-owned services, including water supply.
The Troika has, however, no intention of stopping there. Hiding behind a seemingly technical proposal to ‘reform’ and ‘modernise’, via what the Commission calls ‘market opening’, the way in which governmental authorities award contracts to suppliers, the ‘Concessions Directive’ would force every local authority in the European Union to put its water supply out to tender. Although authorities are allowed to take other considerations into limited account, the rules generally favour the highest bidder.
Experience shows us that big corporations such as Veolia and Thames Water will spend what’s needed to gain control of the water supply, then ratchet up prices, at the same time cutting corners on quality in order to recoup their investment as quickly as possible through enhanced profits.
Interviewed on the German TV programme Monitor, Oliver Hoedeman, a spokesperson on water at the Amsterdam-based Corporate Europe Observatory, noted correctly that the promises which accompany water privatisation “better service, lower prices” are never kept. Instead “there is a tendency to rising prices and the promised investment into the water networks almost never becomes a reality.”
The drive to privatise water in the face of both considerable evidence and overwhelming public opposition is a result in part of advice from the ‘Steering Group’, a supposed ‘Expert Group’ responsible for supplying the Commission with ideas on how to effect improvements in water policy.
Like all ‘EU Expert Groups’, the Steering Group is populated almost exclusively by representatives of corporate capital, including water privateers and finance houses.
Its purpose is to enable its members and their friends to profit from something nobody can do without. The bulk of Europe’s water supply remains in public ownership, and the aim is to bring about a drastic change in that situation. As well as nationalised and municipal water companies, innovative models such as the not-for-profit company which supplies water in Wales would also be threatened by this new public procurement model.
So it’s important that people all over Europe join the fight against water privatisation, organising in solidarity with the Mediterranean peoples whose governments are giving way to Brussels’ blackmail on this as on so many other matters, but also with an eye to our own future.
One initiative which, while it is unlikely to have much impact in itself, has provided activists with a point around which to rally support, is the petition of over a million signatures which was presented to the European Commission on February 11th. Organised by the campaigning group Right2Water, the petition against the deregulation of water utilities and for legislation making access to clean drinking-water a human right, meets the rules qualifying it as a ‘European Citizens’ Initiative’.
Collect more than a million signatures from at least seven EU member states and the Commission must respond to your demands within three months of their being presented. Their reply will be bland and evasive, of course, but this will once again demonstrate to people the absolutely undemocratic nature of the European Union, and other ways to build on already enormous public support and resist this act of theft will be sought and found.