Professor McGiffen Consulted by the Irish Parliament on the Issue of Water Policies in the EU

Friday, 17 March 2017

steve_mcgiffen.jpgProfessor Steve McGiffen was approached by the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) to assist with their deliberations on the issue, by outlining water services funding systems in other European Union member states, and drawing the lessons from their experiences. “I wrote a book on EU water policies a few years ago. I’m a former member of the Secretariat of the United Left Group in the European Parliament, and my main responsibility was for environmental policy,” Prof. McGiffen explains, “so I imagine my name was put forward by Irish politicians with whom I worked then.”

Ireland is the only EU member state which makes no direct charges for water, funding domestic water supplies instead from general taxation. This is against EU policy, and so the country has come under heavy pressure. It succumbed to this three years ago, but public resistance led to rapid withdrawal of the charges.

Prof. McGiffen writes: "Clearly payment through general taxation is the fairest system, but there is a problem, as it provides no incentive for conservation. Yet Irish domestic water consumption is not exceptionally high when compared to similar countries. What is high is the rate of loss through leakage, which ordinary consumers can do nothing about. In addition, resistance has been fuelled by wasteful practices by major non-domestic users which have the effect of discrediting domestic water conservation measures which may be seen as inconveniencing ordinary people. In this situation it is the state’s responsibility to avoid waste itself and ensure that other major non-domestic users do so. Excessive bonuses paid to water company staff, and €50m shelled out to consultants (my own submission was pro bono!) have also fuelled discontent."

McGiffen suggested that given “the fact that the Irish public is clearly unhappy about the way in which water charging was introduced and conducted, the first priority may be to reassure them that it will not be reintroduced, and that some alternative method will be adopted to cover the costs of maintaining the water supply system and financing… urgently needed improvements.” Professor McGiffen notes that “My views seemed to me very close to that of the Expert Committee which was commissioned to write the report on which I was asked to comment, that ‘the goals of a water delivery charging system: covering costs; making these costs and the way in which they are covered transparent; conservation of water resources; and protecting low-income households from financial burdens which they are not in a position to carry.’ he advised the Committee in addition that “evidence points conclusively to the fact that the sine qua non of achieving these goals is public ownership of the domestic water supply.”

Having laid his cards on the table in this way, he gave an account of the systems used in France and the Netherlands, which, he says “are the ones I know best.”

McGiffen’s conclusion was that Ireland should not impose water charges on its people, given their sustained resistance to such a system. Instead, it should deal with issues of major waste by non-domestic users, and encourage, including by subsidy, adoption of domestic technologies such as low-flow shower heads and replacement flapper valves, which should be done in the context of a major effort by government, educational institutions and the media to educate people as to the importance of the issues, which is not always obvious to people who live in a country notorious for its high rainfall.

A final conclusion looked at the broader implications at what is a difficult time for the European Union: “Opposition to both charges and to privatisation needs to be respected if people are not to conclude that Ireland’s democracy is being undermined by outside forces, principally the European Commission, which is widely believed to be committed to finding ‘market’ solutions to anything and everything. A series of overturned or ignored referendum results in Ireland and elsewhere have undermined the EU’s image as a family of democratic nations, and for obvious historical reasons Irish citizens do not welcome being dictated to by foreign entities. As things stand Ireland has avoided the rise of a far right party such as UKIP, the Dutch PVV or France’s Front National, and it is important to maintain this state of affairs. So the question of Ireland’s water, how to pay for it and how to finance the necessary modernisation of the system are also questions involving democratic rights and how these are understood, defined and exercised in your country. Ireland’s people, in common with those in many other European Union member states, have a thirst not only for wholesome and affordable drinking water, but for the feeling that they control their own country, their own towns, villages and neighbourhoods; that they are, in other words, citizens of a democratic society.”

The complete submission of 6 pages is not available as yet on line, but Prof. McGiffen would be happy to supply the text to any student who’s interested. “This might not seem an obvious topic for IR,” he says, “and until recently it may not have been. However, pressure from multinationals means that states are coming under pressure to privatise their systems, and this gives the issue an international dimension. I would recommend also the Public Services International Research Unit website, which has a huge amount of information on not only water delivery but public services in general.”

 
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Sumiko Tanaka USA
M.A., School of International Relations
Class of 2007

quote leftI had a truly memorable experience at AGS. The professors and staff are amazing and we were all so lucky to get such personal attention. The small size of the school really counts for a lot.quote right

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