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One Million Europeans Petition for a Universal Right to Water and Sanitation

Author: Diana Wallis

Published on Feb 15, 2013

One Million Europeans Petition for a Universal Right to Water and Sanitation

This week is a landmark in the development of participatory, one could even say direct, democracy at a European level. Not yet a year since the European Citizen’s Initiative entered into force, it has been announced that the required one million signatures has been reached for the first initiative: a campaign in favour of the universal right to water and sanitation (

This accomplishment demonstrates two things. Firstly, that gaining the requisite one million signatures across the EU is not a simple task as for even a well organised campaign such as this it has taken almost a year. So we can deduce that the EU is not about to be flooded with a deluge of initiatives. Secondly, those who predicted a slew of anti-EU and backward looking initiatives have also been proved wrong. Of course, the political orientation of this initiative against the privatisation of water related service provision will not be appreciated by all, but it is surely a topic well deserving of debate at European level.

European Citizens' InitiativeThe question now is how will it be dealt with from here on? This was the issue we were at pains to deal with properly when shaping the initiative as legislators in the European Parliament. Against the original Commission proposal we built in a clear chain of events that now has to occur. This should be, firstly, a dialogue between those framing the initiative and the Commission (as the European executive) resulting in either the bringing forward of a legislative proposal or some lesser instrument, or even an entirely negative response but in that event a clear reasoned response from the Commission must be forthcoming. In the meantime there has to be a public hearing ‘organised’ by the European Parliament. There are also time limits to be adhered to.

The European Parliament hearing is potentially problematic. Some of us felt strongly that such a hearing needed to be undertaken by a demonstrably neutral committee: the Petitions Committee. However, ultimately, it seems likely the relevant policy committee will have responsibility, or a joint responsibility. The worry being that the intended direct dialogue between citizens and executive is interrupted too early by part of the legislature which will already have its own ideas about how the issue should progress. The point being that the legislators will have their moment as soon as the Commission comes forward with a proposal and it is unhelpful for them to interrupt the direct dialogue between people and executive at this stage. Of course, alternatively, one could argue that parliamentarians may help by further championing the initiative and so add weight to its likely success or not. It is a tricky balance. This should be a democratic tool for the people and the people’s representatives should restrain themselves, rather not get in the way but facilitate the dialogue. Let’s hope for a positive experience.

Diana Wallis was a Member of the European Parliament for twelve and half years, including five years as a Vice President, with responsibility for Transparency. She is a founding member of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (IRI) and was one of the leading MEPs involved in the creation and introduction of the European Citizens Initiative.  She is currently a member of the Unlock Democracy Council.




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