Making Water a Human Right
The time has come for the first ever European Citizens’ Initiative to be heard by the European institutions having surpassed the ambitious one million signature threshold. The inaugural debate on a European Citizens Initiative was held for the “Right2Water” ECI on Monday, February 17th, 2014, at the European Parliament’s premises in Brussels and organised by the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), in association with the Committee on Petitions, the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection, and the Committee on Development.
“We shall have a reason to celebrate when the European Commission acts to show that the ECI is not something that you can just shrug off” said Jan Willem Goudriaan, Vice-President of the ECI “Right2Water” Citizens’ Committee.
Following the reception of the initiative by the Commission on 20 December 2013 and the validation of 1,680,172 signatures as final number (the minimum of signatures required to submit an ECI was one million, as for all the ongoing ECIs, whereas the number of valid signatures varies between 88% and 95% of the total handed in national authorities in each of the 28 EU countries) collected in more than 7 countries (minimum of countries where a specific threshold must be reached in order to successfully conclude the first phase of the ECI process), the European Parliament hosted the ECI “Right2Water” organisers for this public hearing, which provided them with the opportunity to present their three key goals to all attendees:
- Guaranteed water and sanitation for all in the EU;
- Global access to water and sanitation for all;
- No liberalisation of water services.
Just a few days ago, the PETI committee also unveiled its study on ECI and first lessons of implementation while tackling other issues and voted on two reports such as:
- the successful adoption of the 2013’s EU Citizenship Report;
- the petitions on immigration;
- the petitions on fundamental rights dealing with child custody/protection.
Cora Pfafferott, speaking on behalf of Democracy International, the European Citizen Action Service and the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (three pioneering organisations which have joined up for the first ECI support centre, a new initiative aiming to provide independent information and to give first-hand advice on how to organise and implement an ECI), explained that this public hearing could also be considered a “litmus test” for the actual, impacting success of the European Citizens’ Initiative, which is the first agenda-setting instrument for citizens at transnational level in history.
At the same time, is it also important to remember that, in spite of the clear success of “Right2Water”, very few people actually know how exactly, since April 1st, 2012, we as European citizens’ can directly influence European legislation through a “European Citizens’ Initiative” (also known as ECI). This new tool for participatory democracy, introduced as a result of the Treaty of Lisbon with the express purpose of increasing participation and direct democracy at the EU level, allows citizens to collect at least one million signatures (0.2% of the EU population) online or offline to call directly on the European Commission to consider introducing a specific legislative proposals of interest to them in an area of EU competence, thereby changing EU law. If they succeed, as we hope for our very first initiative to reach the public hearing stage, the first ECIs will be truly recognised as a great change in European decision-making process and agenda setting, although there are still so many challenges and barriers that make it difficult, and continue to make it difficult, for organisers to reach the number of one million signatures required to submit the proposal. Problems such as the differing requirements in each Member State (ranging from ID number to full address and father’s name that those who sign must give), the difficulties of successfully, correctly and quickly implementing the online signature collection system, the continuous impediments with backend features of signature collection software (OCS) in working smoothly, and hurdles due to the long time required to mobilise as many supporters in as many countries as possible to get behind the campaign with no specific funds available are still to be overcome. These difficulties were also expressed yesterday with the occasion of the public hearing by some of ECIs pioneers and organisers who launched their own initiatives in 2012 and 2013.
Since April 2012, more than 40 ECIs have been registered with the European Commission: 17 were refused as they dealt with issues outside the competencies of the Commission, 6 were withdrawn by the organisers and 5 failed to reach the required one million signature threshold.
Only seven initiatives are currently gathering statements of support, covering a broad spectrum of issues including the employability of younger generations through investment in education, equal opportunities for education and training, the female entrepreneurship gender equality legislation and the the promotion of pluralism and freedom of the media in Europe, the latter initiated by European Alternatives with many other organisations thorough Europe.
Although three initiatives have reportedly managed to gather enough support so far (apart from “Water is a human right / Right2Water”, we can also mention here the ECIs “Stop Vivisection” and “One of Us” with more than one million signatures each collected in less than 12 months) and the ECI “Water is a human right” success as the first qualifying for a public hearing with 1,680,172 valid signatures (out of total number of 1,884,790 signatures delivered to national authorities between 10 September and 23 September 2013 by the organisers and activists), many challenges and hurdles still lay ahead for all ECI organisers: very few people actually have a clear understanding of the ECI tool, and the procedures for conducting an initiative are still far from being citizen-friendly. Finally, in spite of the success of the public hearing yesterday, we not know until March 20th how a successful ECI will be honoured by the institutions.