The European proposal for an EU Blue Deal picks up speed. On October 26, 2023, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), in a packed room at the Charlemagne Building in Brussels, officially launched its proposal for a new strategy for the European Commission to rethink the economics, legislation, cooperation and management of European and international waters.
EESC President Oliver Röpke presented a policy statement containing 15 guidelines and 21 concrete actions to make the Blue Deal a reality. “Water is the priority,” Röpke told the assembly, “we need to learn from our mistakes with climate, energy and critical raw materials and adopt an autonomous water strategy that is on an equal footing with the EU's Green Deal.”
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), about 20 percent of Europe and 30 percent of Europeans are affected by water stress on average within a year, due to climate change but also to poor water management. “The EU's current policy framework is not fit for the purpose and needs to be updated with the same determination with which the EU addressed the climate crisis through the Green Deal,” Röpke added.
In short, priorities are being prepared for the next Commission and Parliament after the June 2024 elections, although some initiatives may already be presented in the spring. “We need to put water in a prominent position in the next legislative term,” reiterated Permille Weiss, Chair of MEP Water Group.
“The European Parliament fully supports the creation of a Blue Deal. It is exactly what we need: a holistic, structured, evidence-based approach to our precious water resources. There is no Green Deal without a Blue Deal.”
The result is a document that is based on important principles: symbiotic action, restoration of river and wetland ecosystems, the right to access to water (there are 400,000 people in the EU without access to clean water and nearly 6 million without access to sanitation), water as a common good, a water smart society, a proper financial plan, and appropriate governance. But even more ambitious is the section of 21 actions to defeat water-poverty, infrastructure inefficiency, and climate change risks.
A stakeholder platform and an ad hoc policy assignment
For the EESC, one of the key actions is to set up a consultative platform of European stakeholders, in the vein of the Circular Economy Stakholder Platform, to share best practices, develop specific standards on water quality and use in agriculture and industry, and promote partnerships and circular economy water initiatives (above all, reuse).
The platform should be jointly managed by the EESC, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Committee of the Regions. In addition, there is a call for the establishment of a European Water Center with an international dimension that can help both member states and other countries.
To reiterate the political weight of the EU Blue Deal, it should be included in a specific mandate to a vice president of the Commission or a Commissioner in charge of water resources. At the international level, European foreign policy should strengthen its water diplomacy, including through development cooperation.
Finance, the key issue
The Blue Deal will have to have its own economic strategy. In addition to national funds, there is a need to establish at the community level the Blue Transition Fund, a unique fund that has yet to be defined. The fund will support infrastructure for adaptation and sustainable management, research and adoption of innovative technologies, training of new skills (blue jobs), and measures to reduce inequalities in access to water and sanitation services.
Concession revenues and fees should be reviewed, respecting the principle of water as a common good, as repeatedly referred to by Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the UN Special Rapporteur on Water, who was present at the event.
The EESC proposes that abstraction rights, permits, licenses, contractual rights, and integral ownership be closely monitored and better regulated to prevent their exploitation for commercial purposes, and calls for restrictive rules to prevent EU water resources from being used for purposes pursued by economic actors from third countries.
Such licenses and permits granted for commercial purposes should benefit from a specific regulatory framework that is transparent and sustainable and treats water as a common good. In the interest of public health and the welfare of EU citizens in specific situations such as crises or droughts, public institutions should be empowered to recover water rights from the private sector in exchange for fair compensation.
With a view to ESG reporting, there should also be a label on the consumption of water required for production (and the company's water footprint), in addition to the current EU energy label, to raise consumer awareness.
Data and collaboration
“It is essential to have transparent, easily accessible, interoperable, publicly accessible and reliable data to develop the Blue Deal,” said Member of the European Parliament Permille Weiss, “so that we can inspire each other and better target allocated finances.” Indeed, to expand the Blue Deal, it is essential to know the state of water infrastructure and the availability of water and sanitation services in each member state.
The proposal states that “Eurostat and OECD, with the assistance of the National Statistical Institutes, should collect, on an annual basis, aggregate data on drinking water and wastewater from utilities” based on “a common methodology” covering all water suppliers supplying at least 10,000 m³ per day or serving at least 5,000 people. “It will also serve to create a water-specific Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) within the European Institute of Technology,” Weiss explains, with the aim of developing innovation based precisely on the knowledge offered by the data collected.
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