Privatisation and the nature of the state is moving to the centre of the struggle against austerity in Greece. The troika of the three key lenders to Greece – the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank – is trying to speed up the sell-off of the country’s public goods and resources by putting them in one holding company to be auctioned off in quick succession. The Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (TAIPED), as this company is pompously named, might as well be an auction house advertising an ‘everything must go’ clear out: ‘Greece for sale. Real estate bargains, profitable companies going cheap.’
Resistance to this handover to the corporate market faces a challenge. In 2011 a reputable polling company found that 75 per cent of Greeks believed privatisation was necessary; in 2012 it was down to 62 per cent but still well over half the population – including more than 40 per cent of Syriza voters. These same polls, however, indicate a point of vulnerability for the troika: water, the one issue on which a majority opposes privatisation. And it is on this issue that resistance is beginning to gain momentum as TAIPED announces that bids for the two state-owned water companies will be invited before the summer for sale by October.
Water privatisation has proved to be a source of fatal vulnerability for governments bent on privatisation. In Latin America victories for water as a human right, against governments assuming they could sell it on the global market, have contributed, for example, to the downfall of right-wing governments in Uruguay, in the late 1990s, and Bolivia, with the Cochabamba ‘water wars’ of 2000.
Already the strength of practical commitment to water as a common good is beginning to prove awkward for the EU members of the troika on their home ground. For example, French president François Hollande’s encouragement to French water companies to start bidding for Greek companies is hardly convincing when the municipality of his own capital city is reporting efficiency savings of £30 million in the first year through bringing water back into public hands, after managers discovered private water companies extracting extortionate profits. Paris’s ‘remunicipalisation’ is part of a trend across Europe. In Berlin, too, private contractors have been dismissed.
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