Thoughts on “how to win”: the water struggle in Greece

  • November 22, 2013

City & Commons

What does it take for a movement to actually win? Organizers in the campaign against water privatization in Greece share their story and their strategy.

The path to the privatization of water in Greece was paved by the entry into the stock market in 1999 of the two major water companies, which led to the French multinational Suez entering the market. But it is now, with the loan agreement between the Greek government and the Troika of foreign lenders, that the real sell-off is to take place. For those citizens patient enough to read the whole document, there is a clause on page 682 of Law 4046/2012 which clearly includes in the macabre long list of assets to be privatized the two biggest water companies of Greece, both profitable: EYDAP (Athens and region) and EYATH (Thessaloniki and region).

Since July 2012, when SAVEGREEKWATER.ORG, the initiative for the non-privatization of water, was launched, we have been constantly strategizing on how to stop this from happening. We have collaborated closely with members of the two unions and several other organizations in Greece and abroad, and have struggled side-by-side with other movements like Movement 136, which aims for the social management of EYATH through a cooperatives of users; SOSte to Nero, an anti-privatization front in Northern Greece; Watervolo, protecting the springs at the beautiful Pelion mountain from industrialization; and numerous other networks in Greece. Stopping privatization is a first step in a vision for a non-profit, rational and democratic management of water, but for that we might need to found NONPROFITWATER.GR, where most of us would probably romantically enrol.

On how: challenges and realism

Taking to the streets in large numbers for water, or for any other future issue, however serious it might be, does not seem to be a feasible goal at this point, taking into consideration the tiredness of a people that has been protesting for three years and the overwhelming economic reality the Greeks face nowadays. So, despite our grassroots soul and taking into account the institutional dead-ends of Greek legislation when it comes to citizen-initiated referendums, we came up with another approach on how to fight this battle.

Whether this is a good or a bad approach will be evaluated in the end, but for us the realism and the analysis of the “chessboard” were fundamental in inspiring ourselves and new members on committing for more than a year now to hard work every single day, involving first and foremost the objective of gaining expertise on the issue and producing material and “deliverables” in terms of documentation, networking, campaigning and political work.

A two-front strategy

The core idea of our strategy is that water privatization in Greece is in reality European politics. It is part of the loan agreement between Greece and its European creditors, it will benefit French multinationals, and it cannot be stopped only by “lobbying” at the national level. Therefore, in our view, a double pressure on Greek decision-makers both from above and from below was the best starting point for a viable strategy.

So, our first front is the European front, where the fight is given by the European Water Movement, an amazing network of collaborating unions, NGOs, and movements from around Europe — an inspiring sincere change from what we usually experience when these actors try to work together across borders, which usually ends in fragmentation and distrust. Our second front is the creation of alliances at the municipal level, pushing for the adoption of resolutions against water privatization in Attica; a more feasible goal now that we approach local elections.

Communication guidelines

Still, no fight can be won only on institutional terms, even if it is supported by a large number of devoted movement organizers, unless you have the support of “public opinion”, with strong feelings favorable to your cause. So you need to raise awareness and create a long-lasting favorable climate. And what better way to do this in the cultural and political context of today’s apathetic societies than to make your issue sound “a-political” or even “trendy”?

As to the rhetoric and jargon we use, it is purely “smart institutional talk”, yet with radical positions hiding behind it. Despite the strong ideological nature of the fundamental opposition between the public or private management of water — which has been at the heart of a long political philosophy debate — we managed to surpass the ‘ideological’ issues and the narrowness and communication obstacles this leads to.

In the process, we robbed the opposite side of its usual cloak of ‘rationality’ and ‘realism’, and we — the anti-privatization activists — became the ‘rational ones’ and the ‘realists’ in the public debate while making them — the neoliberals — sound like ideological priests. We will even go a step further and become “trendy” by launching a carefully designed campaign of web spots, radio spots and posters. In a word, we have reversed the old Greek saying that Caesar’s wife must not only be faithful but also look faithful.

Collaboration and catalyst approach

Nobody stands alone without “allies”, and so collaborations of all sorts in Greece and abroad — from small street actions to big forums or letter exchanges with the Commission — are part and parcel of our everyday life now, and have enriched us in many substantial ways by broadening the palette of tools but also the palette of approaches available to us.

In a way, we think that for everything we need to do there is probably a group of people who are already doing it better and who are willing to collaborate at least once, and we do things ourselves only if we fail in our quest to find such people quickly. Becoming a “leader” in a hierarchical structure or maintaining long-term “relationships” between groups is needed much less than it is practiced, and acting as a catalyst in creative out-of-the-box ways is a much better approach when you need to defeat limitless corporations with super-limited resources.

Internal processes and ‘do-ocracy’

On internal processes, our approach is the creation of a “demos” with those we can consent with, building human bonds rather than “rules”. Critique or theory is not considered by our group as “participation”, and unless people do stuff they are not really perceived by others as core members or co-decision makers. This loose “rule” has succeeded in attracting the right kind of people, and the big talkers that usually haunt assemblies luckily left us and sought after other groups, more hospitable to their attitude.

In a way, mutual respect and trust is essential to decentralize decisions and workloads, and the practice of an “assembly for the sake of the assembly” is not among our practices since we really convene only to discuss important issues that are known to be debated within the group, or really important strategic milestones to move us ahead. Of course we do not propose this approach as a panacea for the movement’s growing pains, or as the right thing to do when we investigate approaches to direct democracy. It just works for us — a small group of people, very focused on our specific issue and willing to put aside ideological narcissism or personal differences.

The state of the fight

At the European level, the Commission is typically neutralized by the “neutrality” it needs to maintain when it comes to public or private management of water services dictated in TFEU article 345. Yet it is not at all “neutered” when it comes to its real intentions of creating a water market in Europe, to the great joy of private operators’ lobbyists who hang around Brussels. Yet, we have managed to have the first historically successful European Citizens’ Initiative, right2water, asking for the legislative adoption by the EU of the UN human right to water and its protection from liberalization, gathering 2 million signatures (well in excess of the 1 million that were needed, 33.000 of which in Greece, where only 16.500 were needed). We managed also to make European Commissioner Olli Rehn agree in public to exempt water services from privatization if the Greek government asks for it.

At the national level, 40 organizations from the assemblies of the squares to scientific unions co-sign our campaign; 5 municipalities already adopted resolutions against water privatization; and recently news articles have begun to claim that the Supreme Court is about to cancel the transfer of EYDAP and EYATH state stocks to the TAIPED fund, through which all privatizations are carried out, on grounds that “water is a public good”. If this is the case, well, it is no such a bad result.

So now, would you say that the fight is on?

Maria Kanellopoulou

Maria Kanellopoulou is an activist who has been involved in the Movement of the Squares and the Initiative for the Non-Privatization of Water in Greece.

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