Axing of water charges is ‘within EU law’

Ireland is not subject to the spectre of massive fines or penalties for scrapping water charges thanks to the freedom available to member states to set their own rules over the EU’s water laws, according to Fianna Fáil.

In lengthy legal advice published last night, Micheál Martin’s party put further pressure on the Government to justify its reasons for not permanently abolishing household water charges.

Political parties are at an impasse on deciding the future of water charges in Ireland, ahead of a crunch meeting of an Oireachtas committee next week — which must report to the Dáil within days.

Amid threats that the Coalition could collapse, the Government and Fianna Fáil are divided on whether a so-called ‘excess’ charge should remain for households wasting water.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney said yesterday that normal water bills would be abolished but Ireland was obliged under EU law to charge households using excess amounts.

“Water charges are gone, they’re going to be abolished,” said Mr Coveney. “Normal usage for households across the country will be paid for through general taxation.

"But there needs to be a consequence for people who waste large volumes of water. We have a legal obligation to make sure that happens but that is also the right thing to do.”

His position, backed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, puts the Government on a collision course with Fianna Fáil, whose spokesman Barry Cowen warned that if Mr Coveney refuses to legislate to scrap charges, “it is him that is bringing down the Government”.

Fianna Fáil went one step further last night by publishing private legal advice which backs their claim that Ireland is not breaching EU law by scrapping charges.

The advice sets out why Ireland is exempt from charges, a position which dismisses any suggestion of EU penalties applying.

The 33-page document says Ireland has a “wide discretion” as to how it complies with the EU’s water framework directive.

Barristers Darren Lehane and Conleth Bradley say EU laws do not require all countries to have the same rules, as there is no “complete harmonisation” among member states regarding water. It suggests states, according to the directive, can decide not to charge households as there is no requirement for cost recovery to rely on “individual consumption”.

However, Mr Kenny insisted his Government would not implement legislation on water charges that is “illegal”. The Government says the attorney general, the EU, and an expert group all agree it is illegal, with some suggestions Ireland would face €50m in fines if charges are abolished.

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Kenny hinted the water committee might get extra time.

“I would expect them to deliberate on that and continue their work until such time as they bring forward their views and their recommendations to the Oireachtas,” he said.

Meanwhile, it is understood that Green Party senator and committee member Grace O’Sullivan is willing to support Fine Gael’s push for an excess charge — but only if there is a guarantee of a referendum on keeping Irish Water in public ownership. This is in line with commitments she has given to the civil engagement group in the Seanad.

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