Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič said: "Europe's citizens have spoken, and today the Commission gave a positive response. Water quality, infrastructure, sanitation and transparency will all benefit – for people in Europe and in developing countries - as a direct result of this first ever exercise in pan-European, citizen-driven democracy. I congratulate the organisers on their achievement."
The Commission's reaction is set out in a Communication which starts by outlining the enormous amount of work already done by the EU in the field of water and sanitation. For example, within the EU, it has set ambitious water quality standards, and provided financial support to expand and improve water infrastructure in Member States.
The decision on how best to operate water services is firmly in the hands of the public authorities in the Member States, and the Commission will continue to respect Treaty rules requiring the EU to remain neutral on national decisions governing ownership of water undertakings. Similarly, in international trade negotiations, the Commission will continue to ensure that national, regional and local choices on how to run water services are respected and safeguarded. The unique nature of water and sanitation services in satisfying the basic needs of the population have been consistently acknowledged in EU legislation. Water distribution and supply, as well as wastewater services, are already expressly excluded from the application of the cross-border freedom to provide services. And last year the Commission excluded provision of water services from the Directive on the awarding of concession contracts, as a direct result of public concerns.
Globally, the EU and its Member States currently provide close to €1.5 billion/year for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes in developing countries, making the Union the largest single donor in the world in this area.
In light of the European Citizens' Initiative, the Commission sought to identify any remaining gaps and areas where more efforts - at EU or national level - need to be made in order to address the concerns motivating this citizens' call for action. Today it committed itself to the following concrete steps and new actions in areas that are of direct relevance to the initiative and its goals:
- step up efforts towards full implementation of EU water legislation by Member States;
- launch an EU-wide public consultation on the Drinking Water Directive to assess the need for improvements and how they could be achieved;
- improve information for citizens by further developing streamlined and more transparent data management and dissemination for urban wastewater and drinking water;
- explore the idea of benchmarking water quality;
- promote structured dialogue between stakeholders on transparency in the water sector;
- co-operate with existing initiatives to provide a wider set of benchmarks for water services, improving the transparency and accountability of water services providers by giving citizens access to comparable data on key economic and quality indicators;
- stimulate innovative approaches for development assistance (e.g. support for partnerships between water operators and for public-public partnerships) and promote best practices between Member States (e.g. on solidarity instruments);
- advocate universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a priority area for post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals;
- finally, invite the Member States, acting within their own competences, to take account of the concerns raised by citizens through this initiative and encourage them to step up their efforts to guarantee the provision of safe, clean and affordable water to all.