Abolishing water charges could mean millions in EC fines

Karmenu Vella: Flexibility ended in 2010 with FF-led cabinet pledge on water charges

Environment commissioner Karmenu Vella said a derogation from water charges could have been sought in 2010 but was not. File photograph: Getty Images

Environment commissioner Karmenu Vella said a derogation from water charges could have been sought in 2010 but was not. File photograph: Getty Images

 

The European Commission has said Ireland cannot abolish water charges without breaching the EU’s water framework directive.

Environment commissioner Karmenu Vella said the flexibility offered to Ireland ended in 2010 when the then Fianna Fáil-led government pledged to introduce water charges.

Mr Vella’s statement increases the possibility of daily fines being imposed on Ireland which could reach millions of euro.

In a written response to Marian Harkin MEP, Mr Vella said a derogation from water charges could have been sought in 2010 but was not.

He said: “On the contrary, in the said plans, Ireland made a clear commitment to set up water charges to comply with the provisions of Article 9(1) (WFD).

“Ireland subsequently applied water charges and the commission considers that the directive does not provide for a situation whereby it can revert to any previous practice.”

Enforcement proceedings

The statement clarifies the commission’s position and heightens the likelihood of enforcement proceedings. If the commission moves to takes action against Ireland it could result in fines being imposed daily.

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney said he was not surprised by the response from Mr Vella. He said it had always been Fine Gael’s position that a charging regime was necessary to comply with the directive.

He said it was now a matter for the proposed independent commission on water charges to consider the European Commission’s response.

During negotiations to form a government, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agreed to suspend water charges for nine months and allow an independent commission to examine the best charging regime.

It is unclear whether the commission believes a pausing of the levies is in breach of the water directive.

Mr Coveney said he is going to Brussels next week to meet Mr Vella to explain the Government’s decision to suspend the charges.

‘Domestic’ political issue

Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin criticised the commission’s response and claimed it was an attempt to intervene in a domestic political issue.

He said: “Commissioner Vella’s latest statement represents a very significant shift in position from what he has said on the matter previously.

“It appears that he is playing politics with the issue of domestic water charges in Ireland.”

Fianna Fáil has said it has legal advice which contradicts the commission’s statement but has refused to publish it. The party said it will make it available to the independent body set up to examine the charging regime.

Former minister for the environment Alan Kelly said the commission’s position was now crystal clear. He said Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil must now be challenged on whether the suspension of the charges is in breach of the directive.

Mr Kelly said: “What is being proposed could be illegal and could result in substantial EU fines in the years ahead.”