We're on collision course with EU over water fiasco
Published 04/06/2016 | 02:30
Among the biggest issues facing the minority Government is water charges. Opposition TDs have demanded they be abolished, but a statement from the European Commission this week appears to suggest that even if the Dáil votes to scrap the charges, there may be a legal problem.
Why? There are two main reasons.
Under the 2000 Water Framework Directive, EU member states are obliged to protect and improve the quality of all waters and achieve "good ecological status" no later than 2027.
This is in part achieved by implementing the 'polluter pays' principle.
This means that if you - 'you' being a business, a farmer, a retailer, an industrial plant or a householder - cause pollution which affects water quality, you must pay the cost of cleaning it up.
That includes everything from trade effluent, to greywater from the washing machine, to the contents of the toilet.
The directive also references recovering the costs of providing water services by way of an "adequate contribution" from industry, households and agriculture. It also talks about measures to encourage users to use water resources efficiently, ie, conserve it. This can be achieved by putting a price on water.
Ireland had a derogation from imposing charges under this part of the directive, called Article 9.4, and treatment costs were funded by the taxpayer until last year, when charges went live.
But the Commission now appears to be of the view that as domestic bills are the law of the land, they are 'established practice', and so we cannot revert to the 'old' system.
Nonsense, insist Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Anti-Austerity Alliance, among others. A charge which is in place for just 18 months, and which has met with such mass resistance, is hardly an established practice.
What happens next is open to question. The Commission may ask the Government how it's complying with the directive. If not satisfied with the response, it could take legal action.
It has form in this regard. In December 2012, we were fined for failing to ensure that waste from septic tanks was not causing pollution. A lump sum of €3.5m, plus a daily fine of €12,000, was imposed.
It's unlikely the Commission would be impressed if we were seen just four years later to be ignoring a directive designed to prevent pollution of our water. And lest we forget, we signed up to it.
Arguing that charges are not 'established practice' causes difficulty, not least because it is ill-defined. Is it based on longevity?
The fact that more than half of Irish Water customers have paid some part of a bill, while hundreds of thousands more in rural Ireland have been regularly paying charges for many years, also suggests that paying a water bill is not uncommon.
Our bargaining position is also hampered by the fact that the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government told Europe in 2009 it was introducing water charges.
It later reiterated this position in the bailout programme with the troika, so Fianna Fáil could reasonably be asked what it is whinging about now.
If the Dáil votes to retain the charges, there's no problem. However, if they're scrapped, we are on a collision course with Europe.
The outcome will be ultimately be decided by lawyers, and not politicians.