EU again presses for introduction of water charges in Ireland


Ireland has come under renewed pressure from the European Commission to introduce water charges for domestic consumers. The emphasis on water charges comes in a European Commission paper which argues that pricing is the only way to encourage the rational and sustainable use of a finite resource.

The paper insists pricing is the logical application of the "polluter pays" principle, which is at the core of EU environmental policy and is now enshrined in the Treaty of Amsterdam. "A price directly linked to the water quantities used, or the pollution produced, can ensure that pricing has a clear incentive function for consumers to improve water use efficiency and reduce pollution," the paper argues. But the Government, mindful of the domestic political sensitivity of such charges, is determined not to succumb to Brussels pressure.

The latest draft of EU treaty, changes being considered by the Inter-Governmental Conference ensures the taxation of water will remain an issue. However, its introduction can only be decided unanimously and so can be blocked by Dublin.

The communication from the Environment Directorate is a non-binding contribution to the debate on the implementation of an article in the Water Framework Directive, which requires some form of water-cost recovery but which does not tie the hands of the Government on its form. Last week, however, the Environment Commissioner, Ms Margot Wallstrom, insisted: "As with other scarce resources, water has a price which users and polluters must pay.

"Through adequate water pricing we can ensure that water resources are protected at lower costs and help preserve water resources of high quality for future generations."

Ireland's resistance to water charging has left it isolated from most other member-states which already meter water. And it has caused some friction with the Commission, which regards water as a legitimate target for charging, particularly as the EU has been, and continues to be, so heavily involved through the Cohesion Fund in funding new Irish water projects. Some EU officials argue that such funding should be conditional on member-states being able to show that the resource being created will be used in a sustainable way.

And the Commission does not share Ireland's view that the issue should be viewed as a tax matter, arguing if water were supplied by the private sector the question would not arise.

"We are talking pricing not taxation," a spokeswoman for Ms Wallstrom said. "It is just a means to recover costs," she said, admitting the issue was "nowhere as problematic" as in Ireland. The Commission statement insists it is not suggesting pricing alone will solve water resource problems.

"However, pricing must be given due consideration to ensure it promotes more efficient and less polluting use of our scarce water resources."

The Commission paper also warns that more has to be done to reconcile agriculture and water policy and that this must remain a key priority of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The integration of sound economic and environmental principles into water-pricing policies will be the subject of a major conference in Lille, France, next month.