The transcript of Dialogos Radio’s interview with Maria Kanellopoulou of the activist organization “Save Greek Water.” This interview aired on our broadcasts for the week of October 20-26, 2016. Find the podcast of this interview here.
MN: Joining us today on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series is Maria Kanellopoulou of the Greek activist organization Save Greek Water, who will speak to us today about the impending privatization of Greek water utilities and the possible consequences of this development. Maria, thank you for joining us today.
MK: Thank you very much and greetings to your listeners.
MN: Let’s begin with a brief historical overview of this issue. What did current Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras once promise regarding the privatization of Greek water systems, and what is he saying today?
MK: Well actually, Alexis Tsipras has outdone the previous governments all these memorandum years. Unfortunately he has said a lot opposing water privatization but has done the exact opposite thing. The important thing is that water privatization shouldn’t be an issue and shouldn’t be part of the programs and the things that the creditors of the country are asking for, and unfortunately it is. We have seen these recurrent demands about the water services being privatized since 2010, and all the governments since then, the Papandreou government, the Samaras government, and now the government of Alexis Tsipras, proved incapable of stopping these demands.
MN: What are the Greek government’s current plans with regards to Greek water utilities and their transfer of ownership to a European privatization fund, and what does the Greek constitution have to say about this issue?
MK: What happened is, very recently we saw that despite the Supreme Court decision that we had back in 2014 which prohibits the privatization of water services in Greece, ruling that it is unconstitutional, despite this important decision we have this recent development that both EYDAP (the Athens water utility) and EYATH (the Thessaloniki water utility) were transferred entirely—and this important to stress—to this new “superfund,” which is the new European privatization fund agreed to between the Greek government and its creditors in the Third Memoradum.
Of course, this is something that constitutes a privatization, because this privatization fund does not belong to the public sector as a legal entity. For us, it is very strange that this happened and we’re expressing our criticism, but we’re [also] going to pursue this issue in court and wherever we have the right to do so.
It is important to say that this privatization fund has four different subsidiaries. One of this is the public participation’s holding company, where the water services have been transferred. The very critical thing here to also remember is that this fund has a different scope, a different object. It was created to make money to go to the public debt, to help raise funds to reduce the debt, and part of it is supposed to be also for the development of the country. Water services on the other hand, regarding also the Supreme Court decision, have a completely different object. They have the object not to be profitable or directed towards profit, but directed towards providing good sanitation and water services to the citizens of Athens and Thessaloniki.
For us, it is very important that the fact that now with this transfer, even if one stock is not sold, we have a complete change of the character of the water services, which are now instrumentalized with a completely different objective.
MN: We are on the air with Maria Kanellopoulou of the activist organization Save Greek Water here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series. Has the European Union or the European Commission adopted a position with regards to the privatization of Greek water?
MK: Well, here is also there is something that we really need to discuss very seriously. On the one hand, the European Commission is supposed to be neutral when it comes to the management of water services, whether this is private or public. It is an obligation by the EU treaties to have this standing. On the other hand, we see that the Commission is part of the institutions that direct the situation right now in Greece. It is part of the institutions that makes such demands about the privatization of the water companies.
The very problematic issue here is that there is no transparency whatsoever in these negotiations, and we cannot really know what the position of the Commission is and who, in the end, is the responsible party for having to implement these policies which are against the will of the people. This is very obvious because we have, on the one part, the referendum in Thessaloniki in 2014, where 90 percent of the people there voted against privatization, and on the other hand we also have the very successful “right to water” campaign, which is a campaign of the only, let’s say, direct democracy procedure at the EU level, which also was successful in Greece. We know very well that the people are against these policies, and that this continues to be demanded is very, very problematic for the EU as well.
MN: From what I understand though, in many countries in Europe and throughout the West, water utilities remain in public hands. Is that right?
MK: Yes, and not only that but in the few cases where the water has been privatized in recent years, in the past 15 years, there are 235 high-profile cases of re-municipalization. It seems that this model has failed. It didn’t really withstand the pressure. We had a lot of problems with private management, and therefore so many cities around the world, in Europe in very high-profile cases such as Paris or Berlin, the management went back to public hands.
This is not a very big surprise for us. In studying with rationality and patience the available data, because it is in the nature of this monopoly, which is a public service, to not be able to go in the direct of the market, in the market-based economy as we know it.
MN: Specifically with regard to the examples of Paris and Berlin, how were the water utilities in these cities returned to public hands after they initially had been privatized?
MK: In Paris it was a political decision. After the mayorship changed hands and became part of a coalition between left parties and greens, they decided to stop, not to renew the contract that they had with one of the big French multinational private water operators. So it came smoothly, politically and economically speaking, which was not the case in Berlin. Berlin was a completely different case. Actually, Berlin is one of the very few cities in Germany—where the majority of the cities still have publicly-owned and managed water utilities—that tried this privatization effort. A lot of scandals erupted because there was a secret deal between city hall and the private operators. Citizens had to invoke a referendum to learn the content of these secret deals, and at the end, they had to pay a lot of money to break the contract and regain control of their services, after a lot of problems and a lot of economic hardship for the citizens of Berlin.
MN: We are speaking with Maria Kanellopoulou of the activist organization Save Greek Water here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series. Are there any examples that you could share with us regarding the adverse consequences of water privatization in other countries?
MK: In most cases, we have a lot of problems with the raising of the prices…there is an unjustifiable [increase] in the tariffs in the water. There is a lot of neglect when it comes to investments in the infrastructure. Occasionally we also have problems with pollution and quality controls. Of course, in many cases there are also stories of secret deals, of profit guarantees between the private operator and the party or authority which gives the concession contract.
In the end, a lot of the citizens, as I said before, are obliged by the outrage of their citizens, to take back the control of the water companies. We really don’t need to see that happening in Greece. We know exactly what the consequences are, and it is shameful that cities in Europe that have long [experienced] these kinds of policies, now try to impose them in a European country with economic hardship such as Greece. There is no need to make things even more difficult, as it already is.
MN: Which are the companies, the multinational corporations that are the key players in the international water utility industry, and have these companies show interest in purchasing Greek water systems?
MK: Back in 2014, when we had the tender for the sale of EYATH, which is the Thessaloniki water company, two very big players participated in the tender, together with some Greek companies that were in some kind of consulting [role] with them. One was Suez. Suez is a French multinational, a very big player in this sector. The other one is Mekorot, which is a very big public state-owned company of Israel. These two companies expressed their interest and participated in the tender of EYATH, and of course this tender stopped because of the Supreme Court decision in May 2014. They have many times said publicly that they are still interested in acquiring or participating somehow in the Greek water sector.
MN: What do the trade agreements that the European Union is currently negotiating with the United States, in the case of TTIP, and Canada, in the case of CETA, mean with regard for the future of water throughout the European continent?
MK: A lot of organizations, and especially the ones [producing] the research around these treaties, have expressed their concern that the future of water services is in danger. A lot of issues are raised with these treaties, but for me the most important thing here is the lack of transparency and the fact that they’re considered to be just treaties of commerce, which is not the case. They influence such a variety of aspects of our lives, which is unacceptable the way that they are discussed behind closed doors.
We’ll see how it goes. There is a lot of concern among citizens in Europe right now about these deals, and we could say more, but most of these deals are secret, so we don’t know the exact consequences that they will have in several aspects. One of the most unnerving, of course, is this kind of international tribunal, which is supposed to rule all the cases between the states and respective investors, which are the multinationals in our case. A mechanism which is beyond the international court system that we have right now, and it is, in the cases where it has already been applied, there are a lot of problems for the states to be bound to the rules and regulations of the markets, or environmental aspects of their law.
MN: We are on the air with Maria Kanellopoulou of the activist organization Save Greek Water here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series. Since the privatization of publicly-owned assets is often justified based on economic grounds, could you tell us what is the economic status of Greece’s water utility systems today?
MK: What is interesting to note, in the case of Greece we have both EYDAP and EYATH, which are very profitable and stable companies. Only [in 2015], EYDAP made 138 million euros in gross profit. Now they have already agreed to sale a minority share of 11 percent to a bidder… The market value of the companies inside the stock market is entirely different from the value of their infrastructure, which is paid for by generations and generations of taxpayers in Greece.
We have companies that are profitable, which offer cheap water, some of the cheapest tariffs in Europe right now, and let’s just say that in Greece we still drink water from our taps. Tap water is drinkable, and we know that in many cases when water is privatized, in a very few years, we have a problem with [the consumption] of tap water. This would be devastating if such a thing occurs. Most of the people in Greece right now have great difficulties in paying their electricity bills or their everyday groceries. To add water to their shopping cart will be a very big problem.
MN: How does your group, Save Greek Water, plan to respond to the impending privatization of Greece’s water supplies?
MK: Our “bible” is the Supreme Court decision. We consider this a historic decision which protects water services from privatization. Based on this decision, we’re going to make all the legal moves which are available [to us] and to do whatever we can together with allies in Greece and abroad in order to stop this from happening, and also to expose. This is a very big democratic deficit here, when we have a policy which has failed, when we have a policy that’s against the people’s will, and still it is being implemented here. For us, this has to go…we need to show to all the world that this policy here in Greece is against the will of the people and should definitely be revoked.
MN: In your view, what can the ordinary citizen do in order to respond to the privatization of water and other public assets?
MK: In our case in Greece, they can help the organizations which are already active by volunteering their time. We do not take donations of money, but we take time donations from experts or even people who can translate and do demographic designing or whatever a campaign be based upon. And also, even people who don’t think they have a specific skill, they can disseminate information. This is very, very important in our times, especially with social media. They can help in spreading this information, help us disseminate what we’re going to do, the legal stuff for the protection of water. And of course, if they live in a city where they have similar problems, why not self-organize?
MN: In closing, where can our listeners find out more details about Save Greek Water and your organization’s activities?
MK: Our website is updated and active. Our site is www.savegreekwater.org. It is fully bilingual. People who don’t speak Greek too well or at all, they can still learn about not only Greece, but also things that happened in Europe in general, and maybe sometimes in the world, internationally. We try to keep up with the news and inform this issue mainly in the Greek situation, but also internationally. There, in English and in Greek, people can get more information.
MN: Maria, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series, about this very important issue.
MK: Thank you very much for the hospitality and greetings to everybody.
Please excuse any typos or errors which may exist within this transcript.