Housing Minister Simon Coveney insists that Ireland remains committed to water charges, despite the current suspension.
Mr Coveney was speaking after environment commissioner Karmenu Vella told the Government that the EU is closely watching developments in Ireland in relation to water charges.
Mr Vella said Ireland should “avoid” becoming “non-compliant” with international water laws.
Responding to the warnings, Mr Coveney sought “time and space” to address the political dilemma around water charges.
In correspondence seen by the Irish Examiner, he promises that Ireland is “fully committed” to EU water laws and to finding an “enduring” funding model for water.
The warnings come as the recently established Expert Water Commission is bedding down after its original chairman Joe O’Toole resigned over comments he made in an interview in the Irish Examiner.
Previous criticisms of the commission include that its hands were tied due to Ireland’s obligations under EU law, specifically the Water Framework Directive.
Alan Kelly, the former environment minister, said last month that it “does not matter” who chairs this commission because charges will have to be reintroduced regardless of its recommendations, as a result of the Water Framework Directive.
Mr Vella wrote in a letter to Mr Coveney, sent on June 7, that Ireland could not be exempt from charging for water because it has now become the “established practice” to do so. Outlining the commission’s legal opinion, he states: “Consequently, if the established practice in Ireland is to have a system in place implementing the recovery of costs of water services, in accordance in particular with the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the commission considers that the flexibility afforded to member states as outlined in 9.4 would not apply.”
In his response, Mr Coveney outlines the reason for the “contentious” water charges suspension, stating that it was part of a deal with Fianna Fáil which was needed in order to form a minority government.
He reassures Mr Vella that “during the period of suspension of water charges, the Government will be providing Irish Water with additional exchequer funding to replace the domestic revenue forgone and ensure that planned investment in upgrading infrastructure remains on track”.
He adds: “The suspension period will provide the space for a more rational debate on the long-term funding of domestic water charges in Ireland.”
The Department of Housing, which has responsibility for water charges, said Mr Coveney has set out the political realities to the European Commission and that Ireland is committed to the principle of charging for water.
A spokesman for Mr Coveney said the Government is committed to full implementation of the Water Framework Directive and recognises the principle of cost-recovery as an important environmental management measure across a range of sectors.
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