European Commission clarifies State would breach law in abolishing water charges

Karmenu Vella writes to Simon Coveney arguing fees are established practice

The European Commission wrote to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney to offer "legal clarification" on whether Ireland could abolish water charges.

The correspondence from the environment commissioner Karmenu Vella was sent to Mr Coveney’s office in June prior to a meeting between the two.

Mr Vella said he had been following the ongoing debate about the retention of water charges and the then-possible suspension of the levies.

The commissioner said Article 9 (1) of the Water Framework Directive obliges member states to “take account of the principle of recovery of the costs of the water services and to ensure an adequate contribution of the different water users including households to the recovery of the costs of water services”.


Mr Vella adds: “Article 9 (4) provides that member states shall not be in breach of the directive if they decide in accordance with established practices not to apply the above provisions of Article 9 (1), for a given water-use activity, where this does not compromise the purposes and the achievement of the objectives of the Water Framework Directive.

“Consequently, if the established practice in Ireland is to have a system in place implementing the recovery of the costs of water services, in accordance in particular with the polluter pays principle, the commission considers that the flexibility afforded to member states as outlined in Article 9 (4) would not apply.”

Mr Vella says he hopes the legal clarifications were helpful and would be taken into account to avoid non-compliance.

The correspondence follows ongoing debate about whether Ireland can abolish water charges having introduced them.

The commission is arguing the established practice changed following their introduction and therefore that cannot be reversed without breaching the directive.

The Government has agreed to suspend the charges while an expert commission examines their future.

In his response Mr Coveney said the debate in Ireland over water charges had been contentious.

He said the suspension would allow for a rational debate to take place on the future of the levies.

The Minister said: “Compliance with the Water Framework Directive, to which Ireland is fully committed, will be fully taken into account in the work ahead.

"Given the importance to both Ireland and the commission of setting in place an appropriate enduring funding framework for the sustainable delivery of water services in Ireland, providing space and time for the Oireachtas to be complete is critically important."

Mr Coveney has since travelled to meet the commissioner in Brussels to outline Ireland’s position.

Mr Vella was due to respond to the Minister in writing but has not done so yet.