Right2Water, launched in 2012, was the first European citizens’ initiative to successfully reach the 1 million signature threshold. Eight years later, the Finnish organiser of the campaign assesses progress in the EU legislation against the expected results and shares advice for initiative organisers and campaigners.
For this article, Aku Aarva, the European Citizens’ Initiative ambassador in Finland, interviewed Merja Launis. Merja is a special advisor at JHL - Finland’s Public and Welfare Services Union and was responsible for coordinating the Right2Water campaign in Finland.
Right2Water is a campaign to commit the European Union and Member States to implement the human right to water and sanitation. The European citizens' initiative represented more than 120 NGOs and was supported by German and Austrian trade unions. It became the first European citizens' initiative to collect more than a million signatures. How were you involved?
I was involved in starting and designing the Finnish campaign, as my union JHL (the Trade Union for the Public and Welfare Sectors) coordinated the Right2Water campaign in Finland in 2012-2013. The campaign in Finland was conducted jointly by nine public sector trade unions.
The initiator and main organiser of the Right2Water campaign was our European umbrella organisation EPSU (the European Public Service Union). In Finland, we collected almost 15 000 signatures, far above the minimum threshold of 9 750.
We designed the campaign to match the Finnish ”landscape”, for example we modified a little the campaign slogan ‘Water is a Human Right’ to read ‘Water is a Basic Right’ (’Vesi on perusoikeus’ in Finnish), which sounded more familiar and was used when referring to the Finnish Constitution.
Right2Water was the first initiative to reach the European Citizens’ Initiative requirements. Why did it succeed and how did you feel when you reached the goal?
Back in 2012, the European Citizens’ Initiative was a new form of participation for citizens in the EU – it aroused interest. But the main thing was that the theme was easy for people to identify with. Water is something that all people need in everyday life, and nothing in our society could function without water. Water and sanitation should not be commodities, but a universal right, accessible to everyone.
We have had bad experiences of privatised water works in Europe and globally since the 1990s, where services provided by private multinational companies have turned out to be too expensive for citizens and of bad quality. Of course, we felt great when the campaign succeeded and reached its goal. However, the work goes on and the threats of water privatisation are not over.
The EU legislation has made some progress in fulfilling the aims of the Right2Water initiative but is not quite satisfactory yet.
The EC adopted a Communication in response to the Right2Water initiative in 2014. On 1 July 2015, a Roadmap for the evaluation of the Drinking Water Directive was published by the European Commission. In December 2019 the European Parliament and the Council of the EU reached an agreement on the modernised EU rulesimproving the quality of drinking water on the basis of the most recent standards, increasing access to water for all and enhancing transparency in this essential sector. Was this response sufficient in your opinion?
The response of the Commission was not sufficient. The first proposal for legislation is the Recast Drinking Water Directive, which at least partly responds to the demands of the Right2Water initiative.
What is your view on the ECI process? What good do you see in it and what are the challenges? How would you develop it further?
The process has probably improved, but with this first European citizens’ initiative there were a lot of technical and administrative problems, especially with the collection of signatures, as national regulations were different.
If there is too much bureaucracy, it is difficult for smaller NGOs to take part. It would be a shame if only well-established NGOs could manage to carry out and submit initiatives.
What would you say to those that are looking to start a European Citizens' Initiative?
Oh, I have plenty of advice for you:
Plan the campaign carefully. Plan your key messages carefully. Choose your campaign ambassadors carefully. Make sure you have sufficient time, resources and expertise, both for substance issues and for technical arrangements. Build a solid coalition to work with and make sure all your partners are committed, including with leadership. Preferably hire a project coordinator. Keeping up the intensity of the campaign for a whole year is a challenge.
Nevertheless, despite all the challenges, our campaign with the first successful European citizens’ initiative definitely remains one of the highlights of my career!
The organisers of the Right2Water European citizens’ initiative called on the European Commission to ensure that all EU citizens enjoy the right to water and sanitation. They also requested that water supply and management of water resources be excluded from internal market rules and liberalisation, and urged the Commission to increase its efforts to achieve universal access to water and sanitation around the world, where 800 million people still lack access to water and over 2 billion people have no access to sanitation.
The Right2Water European citizens’ initiative became the first European citizens’ initiative to collect over 1 million signatures in 7 countries collecting a total of over 1.6 million validated signatures.
ContributorsAku Aarva, Merja Launis (Interviewee)
Aku Aarva is the Executive Director of European Movement Finland and a member of the European Movement International policy group regarding democracy, citizen participation and fundamental values. Before being named as the Executive Director in April 2017, he held various leadership positions in NGOs involved in higher education development. In European Movement Finland, he is responsible for all of the NGO's national and international operations, including staff management, financial operations and public relations. He has a proven track-record as an organisational reformer, manager, administrative professional and implementer and designer of significant EU-communication projects. Aku is an analytical team player with a precise mindset.
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