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The Bastions of Resistance

The aftermath of the debate on the unborn Framework Directive on SGI only revealed the political weakness of the pro-regulation camp. In addition to sectorization of interest presentation, new ways for advocating the protection of welfare services emerged. Two initiatives must be mentioned here: (a) the creation of an intergroup on public services in the EP; (b) and the ‘Right2water’ campaign led by the unions.

The EP intergroup on public services was created in 2009: after the debacle of the long campaign for a Framework Directive and the clearly visible lack of majority support within the EP, setting up the intergroup enabled the remaining minority to gather its forces and have an institutionalized platform from which to carry on mobilizing on the issue of welfare services. Intergroups are thematic networks which gather MEPs and representatives of interest groups. They meet on a regular basis at the EP and constitute a platform for advocacy in particular policy areas. It was then chaired by the French socialist Fran^oise Castex, assisted by eight vice-presidents from the Liberals (ALDE), the Greens (Greens/ALE), the left (GUE/NGL) and the conservatives (EPP), and supported by a further 44 MEPs from these groups. Fifty representations of local authorities and NGOs were furthermore partners of the intergroup. The objective of the intergroup was, on the one hand, to keep the issue of SGI visible on the political agenda by, for example, demanding that the legal framework for SGI should be revised and brought in tune with the new provision provided by the Treaty of Lisbon (notably Article 14 TFEU) or a revision of state aid rules; on the other hand, the purpose was to stimulate practical progress on the ground, for example, by asking how the common quality framework should be implemented.[1] The Belgian Presidency of the Council in 2010 provided a favourable political context for the intergroup’s activism. However, its activity seemed to decline over the course of the legislature. The intergroup was nevertheless reconstituted with the new EP legislature starting in 2014 with a new chair, the French Jean-Paul Denanot (S&D), and under the label ‘Collective goods and public services’. The less salient mention of SGI or SSGI may suggest the intention to take distance from the EU jargon and broaden the debate. One of the first issues for raising contentious debates has been the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), the successor of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

A second strand of advocacy has been the use of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) by the unions, EPSU in particular. Introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon in order to stimulate citizen participation, the ECI relies on the idea that, if a petition is signed by at least one million citizens in at least one quarter of the EU’s Member States, the Commission must address it by issuing a legislative proposal (provided that the treaty confers the EU the competence to legislate in the policy area in question). EPSU launched an ECI calling on the EU Commission to legislate and secure access to water under the label ‘Right2water’ in 2012. This campaign was part of the broader strategy of ETUC in the aftermath of the failed debate on the Framework Directive and the wake of the financial and debt crisis of 2008. This strategy was meant to respond to ‘growing concerns about neoliberal tendencies’ in the EU, with the policy on welfare services being reduced to a main question of derogation to competition rules (ETUC 2008). With regard to the current institutional setting, the EU Commission clearly seemed less open to pro-regulation civil society organizations, and new provisions related to SGI in the Treaty of Lisbon (Article 14 and Protocol 26) remained a dead letter. Alternative ways for reaching out policy making should therefore be found; notably by combining continued claims for a horizontal legal framework with sectoral action (ETUC). The campaign on water and the use of the new treaty provision on ECI is a good illustration of this strategy. Moreover, it goes back to a tradition of claiming the granting of rights rather than making technical arguments about EU regulation.

Although officially launched in 2012, EPSU’s campaign goes back to a decision from 2009 and more broadly to the involvement with the issue of water distribution since the early 1990s.[2] It is also part of a wider, global movement claiming a right to water by the Public Services International supported by the United Nations (UN), rather than a campaign strictly confined to EU politics (United Nations 2015). The framing of the campaign clearly took issues with the market approach to public goods by claiming that ‘Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a common good, not a commodity!’. The collection of signatures occurred in 2012 and 2013 through multiple events, including cultural events linked to local struggles against privatizations as well as global forms of mobilization such as the World Water Forums and the World Social Forum. The campaign had great resonance in Germany where the campaign was showcased on television in a famous programme featuring a comedian. Linkage with the EU Concessions directive and plans for privatization of water distribution at the local level in Greece or Portugal further increased the salience of the campaign (Parks 2014). Building on the fact that water was recognized as a human right by the UN in 2010, the rights frame was prominent in this campaign, and the notion of ‘public good’ provides linkage with long-standing debates on welfare services. It was accompanied by the anti-market frames calling for regulation and immunization from EU competition law (ibid.). The campaign can be deemed a success since the one million target was largely exceeded: 1.9 million signatures were officially approved through the ECI process and presented to the

EU Commission. Yet, the response in terms of policy making can be seen as rather disappointing since the EU Commission only committed to strengthen its sectoral water policy (and regulation) but not to propose new legislation extracting the water sector from the functioning of the internal market based on competition. To this end, it launched a public consultation which may result in the revision of the Drinking Water Directive from 1998 (98/83 EC). The Commission’s response to the first successful ECI (European Commission 2014) is typical of the dialogue of the deaf which goes on between the EU Commission and the proregulation actors. While the latter demand that welfare services be dealt with an alternative frame to that of the market, the former ensures that efficient regulation within the framework of the internal market is possible. Typically, the Commission reminds that EU sectoral re-regulation in the Drinking Water Directive from 1998 has ensured a high quality of water as well as sufficient access to all. In tune with the principle of subsidiarity, all decisions regarding the management and ownership structure of water distribution (whether privatized, out-sourced or ‘in-house’), on the one hand, and all decisions regarding affordability and pricing, on the other, are left entirely up to Member States’ authorities (ibid., p. 5). Here, though, it must be underlined that such decisions are regulated by EU rules on public procurement and concessions which have been previously discussed. Marketization combined with consumer protection rules is therefore considered by the EU Commission as the best approach to welfare services:

EU internal market rules fully respect the competence of public authorities to ensure the required quality service standard (...) These rules aim at increasing transparency, ensuring non-discrimination and enable citizens to get the best value for their money they pay through fees or taxation. (ibid., p. 5)

The study of the dynamics of advocacy for re-regulation and policy making in the realm of SGI shows that by 2007 the favourable momentum for a positive integration agenda had run out of steam. In the following years, proregulation activism in the last bastions of resistance to marketization within as well as outside the EU institutions (including national governments) has only led to adjustment of EU policies at the margins. This has contributed to confirm rather than question the anchorage of welfare services in the market paradigm and institutional framework.

  • [1] Intergoup Public Services, ‘Activity report 2010’,, date accessed20 March 2012.
  • [2] The account of the campaign provided here is based on Parks (2014).
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