Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 March 2018

EU steers clear of involvement in Irish water charges row

Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes
Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes
Advocate General Nils Wahl 

Sarah Collins

The EU is trying its best to stay out of Ireland's escalating political row over water charges.

The European Commission has refused to comment on Fine Gael's claim that the Oireachtas committee's recommendations on water charges would breach EU rules.

It follows two weeks after EU environment chief Karmenu Vella said it was "questionable" whether charging only for excess water use would pass EU muster.

The EU's water framework directive says all water users - households, businesses and farmers - must help recover the costs of water services, based on a "polluter pays" philosophy.

The problem with charging for excessive use, Mr Vella said in a letter to Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes, is that it is not a "reliable source of revenue" to cover the costs of providing water services and the need for investment in water infrastructure, which he said is "in serious need of upgrade".

The EU has previously said that reverting to paying for water through general taxation would also breach the rules, as the Government can't renege on its commitment to charges once agreed.

Ireland's second problem is that it has exhausted the Commission's goodwill after repeatedly flouting EU drinking water and urban waste water rules.

Just last month the Commission took the Government to court for failing to upgrade waste water treatment in 38 towns and cities, including Athlone, Cork City and Waterford City.

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The EU has taken countries to court over water charges before.

In 2012 it said Germany was not properly charging for water because it exempted hydro-electric power plants and water used for navigation and flood protection.

The EU lost that case in 2014.

But Ireland is an outlier on water in the EU, making it difficult to see the German case as a precedent.

Ireland is the only EU member state that does not charge for domestic water use (Northern Ireland charges only industrial and agricultural users, not householders).

It also has the highest water use per inhabitant in the EU - just under 150 million cubic metres per inhabitant in 2011, according to Eurostat, compared to around 25 million in Belgium, the lowest in the bloc.

The EU gives countries two written warnings and several months before taking them to court.

Fines are calculated based on the seriousness and the duration of the infringement, but can reach tens of thousands of euros per day on top of a lump sum payment.

French case sets precedent for producer organisations

Advocate General Nils Wahl 

The EU’s top lawyer has put French endive producers on notice over price fixing.

Advocate General Nils Wahl  (above) said last week that producer organisations for the leaf vegetable could be in breach of EU competition rules if they

 club together to fix minimum prices or quantities for the market.

The EU encourages and funds producer organisations – groups of farmers and growers that help each other with marketing and distribution – exempting them from some competition rules.

In Ireland producer organisations have been crucial to help mushroom growers compete in a crowded marketplace and draw down EU funds.

The endive farmers were contesting €4m in fines handed down by a French court.

The case will now go back to the court for a ruling.

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