According to the currently applicable Concessions Directive, the European Commission is obliged to submit a report on its implementation by April 2019. This raises questions with regard to public services and the European water management. AK EUROPA used this as an opportunity to host a panel discussion with experts from the water supply sector on January 9th 2019 and to present a comprehensive study on water supply systems in Europe.
In his introductory remarks, Thomas Weninger (Austrian Association of Cities and Towns) spoke in favour of water supply being the responsibility of the public sector. The deregulation policy of the 1990s were the start of financial market players infiltrating public services (“financialisation“). A study commissioned by AK, Younion and the Association of Cities and Towns on the Comparison of European water supply and sanitation systems, which was subsequently presented, shall provide new findings on this subject for further debates.
Afterwards, Leonhard Plank (TU Wien) presented the most important findings of the study, which he had prepared in cooperation with Michael Getzner, Bettina Köhler and Astrid Krisch. In 2011, the European Commission had argued in favour of mandatory invitations to tender for concessions in some infrastructure sectors. The argument of the Commission had been an increase in efficiency of allegedly 10-30 % in these sectors. However, with regard to the to a large part privatised water suppliers in England one could see that hardly any reinvestments were made into their own infrastructure or that the wages of workers had been increased; on the contrary, 97 % of profits after tax were distributed to shareholders. This was also reflected in the companies’ debt. If one compared Wales after the renationalisation of the water supplier, one can see how debt had been gradually reduced. Whilst privatised companies would work with deducting locale value added and large shareholders, public systems, based on localised cycles and democratic leadership were excellent. This also has an effect on prices and water quality, as impressively demonstrated by the study.
Marzena Rogalska (European Commission) pointed out that the report on water supply and sanitation, which the European Commission should present in April 2019, would be delayed by at least two years as many Member States had only implemented the Concessions Directive with significant delay. That is why one was still concerned with collecting data to gain a complete picture of the European situation in order to be able to develop positive proposals by integrating the results.
Wolfgang Deinlein (Stadtwerke Karlsruhe) described Karlsruhe Stadtwerke as a municipal company with several sectors, which originally would have fallen within the scope of the Concessions Directive. This would have made it possible that water supply concession had to be awarded to a private operator - possibly even contrary to the interest of the municipality. This resulted in great uncertainty for the population, which clearly was in favour of public water supply by the city.
Walter Kling (Wiener Wasser) stressed the 140 years of public water supply by Wiener Wasser and emphasised the high degree of satisfaction of the Viennese with the quality of their water. Hence, politics were aware of the fact that this standard had to be retained. The water in Vienna did not require treatment and water pipes were state of the art. One of the reasons was the fact that already back in the 1970s one had tackled the problem of water loss, which other cities had only recognized in the new millenium.
Iris Strutzmann (AK Wien) underlined the excellent water quality in Austria, which was also confirmed by the study. Public suppliers would generally compare very favourably, in particular with regard to efficiency and quality. Especially Hungary would be an example, how after the fall of the Iron Curtain, water supply had been gradually privatised, which meant that quality and various services deteriorated. Hence, it would need a massive political effort to return the water supply to the public sector. This also had an impact on the price of water, which shot up with private operators being in charge and which fell again following the renationalisation of the water supply. In contrast to a previous study, the results for England have also improved, which is due to the fact that over the past years the national regulator has far more intervened in the water supply than before.
In his closing words, Thomas Kattnig (Younion) referred to the high sensibility of the citizens in Europa regard a high-quality water supply. The presented study would provide a good empirical foundation to have further high-standard debates. In view of austerity policies, one had to once again take up the fight for public services and prioritise high-quality public services.