The chain of letters between Simon Coveney and the EU Commission over introduction of water charges

HOUSING Minister Simon Coveney was under significant pressure from the EU Commission to persist with the introduction of water charges, a previously unreleased letter has revealed.

Mr Coveney was told that the EU Commission had serious concerns over how Ireland’s approach to water fitted in with legislation.

In a letter – details of which were not known until now – Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella told the minister that he understood why Ireland had temporarily suspended charges for domestic users.

This followed a meeting between Mr Vella and Mr Coveney on July 8 in which the EU were briefed on the bitter debate in Ireland over charges.

However, Commissioner Vella wrote: “Let me reiterate here, as I have already done during our meeting, that the Commission has concerns over how the current situation in Ireland fits with the requirements of the Water Framework Directive.

“On the other hand, we take note of the fact that the Irish authorities have decided they need a certain amount of time in order to assess how best to provide a service that meets with the legal and regulatory obligations.”

The sequence of letters began weeks after Minister Coveney was appointed last year.

In the opening piece of correspondence from last June, Commissioner Vella said they had been closely following the debate in Ireland and the proposed suspension of water charges.

However, they quickly pointed out that member states were obliged to take account of the principle of recovery of costs from water services.

They also said that countries were obliged to “ensure an adequate contribution of the different water users including households to the recovery of the costs of water services”.

In response, Minister Coveney wrote to say he appreciated the EU’s efforts in following the debate in Ireland which had been “contentious”.

He explained that to facilitate the formation of a minority government, water charges were to be suspended for a minimum of nine months.

Mr Coveney wrote: “This suspension will provide the space for a more rational debate on the long-term funding of domestic water charges in Ireland.”

He asked for a meeting with the EU Commission to brief them on how it would work.

Three weeks after the meeting, Commissioner Vella again wrote to Minister Coveney in which he expressed his concerns about the Irish approach.

He wrote: “The ‘polluter pays’ principle, enshrined both in EU law, as well as in the legal systems of the EU member states themselves requires that member states put in place specific mechanisms that link the amount and destination of water and water services used by households to the costs they bear in order to be able to do so.”

The letter explained that the directives required different water users be broken up into industry, households, and agriculture for recovery of costs.

Mr Vella said: “It is worth also nothing that domestic water charges are a well-established practice across all member states. Users generally pay for the water they consume and it is difficult to think of an equally effective mechanism for incentivising efficient water use.”

He said that approach had been a precondition for attaining good water quality across the European Union and could still take allow social factors to be taken into account.

Commissioner Vella then expressed his “concerns” over how Ireland was going to meet the requirements of the Water Framework Directive.

“I would like to suggest that we remain in contact over this important matter in the following months and would appreciate being kept informed of developments in this matter,” he said.

In a statement, the Department said that the Commissioner’s letters had emphasised the “central importance of cost recovery and encouraging sustainable consumption through metering”.

They said Ireland required significant investment in its water infrastructure and that we could not “walk away” from our EU obligations, including those in the Water Framework Directive.

Minister Coveney has previously said: “The European Commission will not tolerate continued non-compliance by Ireland and has indicated a willingness to go the distance to force Ireland into compliance through the European Court of Justice.”

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