A senior Government minister has told opposition TDs they may be forced to back down on plans to scrap water charges when the nine- month fees suspension ends after the EU warned doing so could see Ireland hit with drastic legal action.
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar made the claim after officials in Brussels said any outright ending of the unpopular fees would breach European laws.
In a formal parliamentary response to Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan, EU officials said Ireland is not exempt from a long-standing Brussels obligation to ensure member states introduce a water charges regime.
As previously reported by the Irish Examiner, the situation does not mean that the EU will fine Ireland for freezing or suspending the fees.
However, if charges are scrapped entirely after the nine-month suspension agreed in the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil government deal, it does mean Brussels could take legal action.
In a statement last night, Ms Boylan insisted it is “crystal clear Ireland’s established practice is to recover costs through general income tax”, meaning charges can be avoided without any legal difficulty.
However, speaking at a book launch in Dublin city, Mr Varadkar said the EU view means opposition TDs may need to re-think plans to vote down any return of water charges after the suspension ends.
“The European Commission has stood over its view that we apply the polluters pay principle and also a cost recovery model. Everyone in the Dáil will take into account what the European Commission said today, which is that the polluters pay principle and the cost recovery principle stands,” he said.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Drivetime programme, Fianna Fáil environment spokesperson Barry Cowen said he “refutes and rejects” the EU position on whether removing charges entirely is legal.
However, his view was contradicted by Labour TD Alan Kelly, who re-iterated his belief “to suspend water charges is illegal”.
Earlier this year, senior EU sources told the Irish Examiner that while Brussels would be deeply opposed to a full scrapping of water charges it may allow a lengthy fees suspension to help political parties form a government.
They noted that while a lengthy suspension would lead to the official threat of legal action, in reality none would be taken provided a commitment was given to introduce some form of fees system - even a significantly reduced one - at an unspecified later date.
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