Sinn Féin has accused Europe of “playing politics” with water charges while Fianna Fáil has disregarded comments by the European Commission stating that the charges cannot be reversed.
Sinn Féin also warned the latest European statement “gives the impression of the commission actively interfering in a highly contested domestic political debate”.
The commission stated yesterday it considers that once water charges were introduced in 2010, they became so-called established practice under the Water Framework Directive and cannot be reversed.
As a result, the commission could initiate infringement proceedings if Ireland abandons water charges.
However, both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil reject this interpretation of the law and said Ireland’s “established practice” is funding water investment through general taxation and not water charges.
Fianna Fáil spokesman on the environment, Barry Cowen, said legal advice obtained by his party from a senior counsel referred to a previous case involving Germany where the commission judged them not entitled to a derogation over the funding of a new hydroelectric plant. The commission was later proven to be wrong by the European courts.
He said: “We have sound legal advice that when the water framework directive was transposed into law, established practice was to pay from general taxation and it’s that date that is important and makes us entitled to a derogation.”
Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin agreed with Mr Cowen that Ireland would be entitled to a derogation because of “established practice” in 2003.
He added: “Article 9.4 is very clear. Member states may seek an exemption from applying the polluter pays principle if they can demonstrate that their overall plan allows them to achieve the objectives of the directive.
“[Environment] commissioner [Karmenu] Vella’s latest statement represents a significant shift from what he has said previously. It appears that he is playing politics with the issue of domestic water charges. This is very unfortunate as it gives the impression of the commission actively interfering in a highly contested domestic political debate.”
In a response to a query from MEP Marian Harkin, Mr Vella said Ireland cannot “revert to any previous practice”.
“Ireland adopted its river basin management plans in July 2010. There is no record of a decision in those plans not to apply the provisions of Article 9 (1). On the contrary, in the plans, Ireland made a clear commitment to set up water charges to comply with the provisions of Article 9 (1).
“Ireland subsequently applied water charges and the commission considers that the directive does not provide for a situation whereby it can revert to any previous practice.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved