By Nick Meynen.
On May 18, 98% of 218.002 voters said NO to water supply privatization in Thessaloniki. The referendum was organized by a wide range of civil society organizations, together with 11 municipalities of Thessaloniki. Over 1500 volunteers, an international team of 30 observers from 7 European countries and Thessaloniki’s Barristers Association ensured that the referendum was held in an orderly and fair way. As events unfolded, it turned out that their support was needed.
In a desperate move on May 17, the central government in Athens declared the referendum illegal and threatened to arrest the organizers. But with the damning election results from this weekend’s elections coming in – one could be forgiven to wonder what legitimacy the central government in Greece still has. It turns out that nobody listened to what the Interior Minister said. Caterina Amicucci from the Forum Italiano dei Movimenti per l’Acqua, one of the 30 observers, said: “The 1.500 volunteers have been working all day and all night to ensure the correctness of the voting process and have not been intimidated by the government decree. This was the victory of people over great corporations and over the attempt to speculate on primary human necessities and transform water, a human right, into a commodity.”
The story starts in 2011, when the government announced its plans to privatize EYATH: the profitable state-managed company providing Thessaloniki’s 1.5 million inhabitants with water and sanitation services. Suez, the water sector giant, was quick to express interest in profitable EYATH. As of May 2014, the privatization process is underway, and two bidders, French Suez and Israeli Mekorot, have advanced to the second phase of the public tender.
Suez was kicked out of Paris when that city decided to remunicipalise the water system – in what has become a global trend. This new trend is most welcome, as two million EU citizens are asking for it. All over the world – municipalities that have privatised water supply in the past are taking control back. However, in those countries mostly governed by a troika from Brussels – like Greece – the opposite is happening. The circular by Minister of the Interior G.Michelakis, declaring the referendum illegal, was nothing less than a failed attempt to row against the stream.
Maria Kanellopoulou from Save Greek Water: “This move exposes Mr Michelakis & the government and reveals the true feelings of their political class regarding the effective participation of citizens in decision- making.”
The result is not just a slap in the face of the Greek government, but also in the face of Brussels. Knock-on effects will be felt beyond the Greek borders. It means that the troika’s iron fist that has squeezed the Greeks for years is rusting and that people are finding its weakest parts. This referendum and resistance is bound to encourage people in other southern European countries to resist the selling out of a basic needs and services, like water supply, to greedy investors with a track record in making things worse.