Water Framework Directive hits brick wall over charging policy

The European Parliament is heading for a showdown with the European Council of Ministers over proposals included in the Water Framework Directive that water users, including farmers in southern Europe, should pay the full cost of water.

The Parliament wants users to pay the full price of water treatment and supply, but the Council wants to leave water policy decisions to Member States.

MEPs gave the directive its first reading in Strasbourg on February 11. They agreed to most of the amendments introduced by the parliamentary Environment Committee, including the proposal for full-cost charging.

But Spanish and Portuguese MEPs opposed the policy, saying it would lead to unacceptably high costs for farmers in the Iberian Peninsular, the Canaries and the Balearic Islands. Other objections to charging came from the Republic of Ireland who maintain a constitutional right to free water.

The Spanish and Portuguese also expressed concern that the introduction of River Basin Management schemes would jeopardise their existing bilateral agreements on water sharing.

The Parliament’s decision to adopt full charging is in direct opposition to the Council of Ministers, meaning the issue will be at the heart of future negotiations between the institutions.

Ian White, Labour MEP for Bristol and the parliamentary Environment Committee’s rapporteur, said he expected the issue of full pricing to cause serious problems, but anticipated further informal conciliation talks “with some confidence.”

A second reading of the proposal is unlikely to be completed by May when Parliament’s work will be suspended for the European elections. Further negotiations will probably take place in the autumn, under the terms of the Amsterdam Treaty.

This means that the proposal will fall under the co-decision procedure rather than as currently under the co-operation procedure. In other words, when Parliament returns it will have the power to veto the entire Water Framework Directive forcing the Commission to put forward a new proposal.

Therefore, the Council has been forced to be more conciliatory. In January, MEPs and Ministers discussed the 14 main areas of disagreement at tripartite “pre-emptive conciliation” meetings overseen by the Commission. Four areas of disagreement were resolved: rules on public consultation and on marine monitoring, plus the inclusion of endocrine disrupters and wetlands in the scope of the Water Framework Directive.

The most important of the ten areas of disagreement remaining are: full pricing of water, the Council’s demands for up to 34 years in which to comply with the Directive’s standards; and Parliament’s insistence that there should be zero emission of dangerous substances by 2020.

The problems between the two institutions date back to June 1998 when the Council reached a preliminary political agreement on the Water Framework proposal. This was seen by Parliament as tantamount to a disguised common position, prompting MEPs to sideline the proposal until the codecision procedure could come into force.

Stewart Rutherford, manager of European Affairs for Hercules Betz Dearborn said he was “worried that the dossier is being used as a football by Parliament. It’s a power game, and I’m concerned that logic and intellectual honesty will go out of the window in trying to reach a compromise at any cost.”

The aim of the proposed Water Framework Directive is to protect surface water, coastal and territorial waters and ground water through a framework which prevents further deterioration, protects ecosystems, promotes sustainable water use, helps combat floods and drought, and phases out discharges of hazardous substances into the aquatic environment by the year 2020.

Specific directives will subsequently be adopted within this framework. It singles out river basins as the basic unit for water management.

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