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Resisting water privatisation in Greece and Portugal

by Andreas Bieler on June 14, 2018
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In response to the Eurozone crisis, austerity and restructuring has been imposed on the European Union’s (EU) peripheral member states in order to receive financial bailout loans. And yet, workers have not simply accepted these restructuring pressures. They have organised and fought back against austerity and enforced privatisation. In the article ‘Commodification and “the commons”: The politics of privatising public water in Greece and Portugal during the Eurozone Crisis’, published in the European Journal of International Relations (EJIR) and freely available at Nottingham eprints, Jamie Jordan and I comparatively assess the struggles against enforced water privatisation in Greece and Portugal set against the background of the structuring conditions surrounding the Eurozone crisis.

Drawing on a historical materialist approach in our analysis of class struggles around the prospective ‘real subordination’ of labour in Greece and Portugal during the Eurozone crisis within the wider temporal restructuring of global capitalism, we have come to a number of conclusions. First, the policy response of privatisation is not simply a technical fix pursuing an ‘exit’ from the crisis, but is actually an expression of a wider historical project of opening up new areas for commodification and capitalist accumulation. Thus, it is especially forces of transnational capital, which (ab-)use the crisis in order to further their material interests in the search for new profitable investment opportunities.

Second, strategies of resistance in both countries, but especially Greece are linked to the search for common(s) alternatives that explicitly question the presence of capitalist social relations. The concept of water as a commons to be jointly owned and administrated represents a direct challenge to neoliberal capitalism and its attempt to utilise water as a commodity to make profit. Through a deeper questioning of the role of water as a ‘commons’, resistance has contested the wider ‘historically integrated process’ of neoliberal capitalist restructuring, bringing to the fore possible democratic alternatives that could potentially produce more socially and economically equitable practices and outcomes.

Third, considering that the pressure on Portugal was much less direct and less severe than on Greece due to the latter’s more difficult economic situation, initiatives against privatisation were of a more general nature in Portugal such as the attempt to include the 2010 UN resolution of ‘water and sanitation are a human right’ in national legislation. By contrast, struggles in Greece focused directly on ensuring continuing state ownership of the public water companies in Athens and Thessaloniki.

Fourth, it is clear that broad-based alliances have been a key asset in resisting the push for privatisation in Greece and Portugal. Importantly, the close relationship between trade unions and political parties in Greece had become discredited and as a result activists were pushed to organise broad based alliances of trade unions and social movements out of sheer necessity. By contrast, similar efforts have been limited in Portugal as a result of the much closer links between the main trade union and the Portuguese Communist Party, which had remained above suspicion.

Public water remains under threat in both countries. In Portugal, current corporate re-organisation of the public water company may simply be laying the foundation for future privatisation. In Greece, although water privatisation had been successfully blocked in 2014, the signing of a third bailout agreement between the coalition Greek government led by Syriza and the troika in 2015 has put water privatisation back on the agenda. The agreement outlines the need to establish  a new independent fund for assets earmarked for privatisation. Water companies are included in this new Fund and their future remains uncertain (Macropolis, 20 May 2016; Save Greek Water, 21 May 2016).

Overall, public water is at the cross-roads in Greece and Portugal and the future of struggles over exploitation is open-ended.

This post was first published on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring

Andreas Bieler
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ).

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