"Should we just sit and watch our children shower with cold water?"
Families demand protection against the Constitutional Court’s ruling on Catalonia’s energy poverty bill
BarcelonaOn 16 November 2015 at 8 in the morning Ricardo took his children to school. When he returned home in the evening, he noticed that they had cut his electricity off. He had fallen behind on the payment of his electricity bills, just like 10 per cent of all households in Europe. On that same date, he began a vigorous campaign on social networks, with the assistance of Catalonia’s Platform Against Evictions (PAH) and the Alliance Against Energy Poverty. Thanks to their pressure, the electric company sent Ricardo a direct message on Twitter requesting his ID number to check whether a mistake might have been made. Within 24 hours electricity was back.
Ricardo warns that “one of the problems for struggling families is that, even though the law is on our side, utility companies just ignore it”. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau complained about this last week and she threatened Endesa and Gas Natural with penalties for ignoring the law on energy poverty and going ahead with disconnections for non-payment. According to Ricardo, this is why it is critically important for the law to be confirmed and stand its ground, which is what the Spanish Constitutional Court (CC) is trying to avoid by suspending part of the Catalan law that guarantees gas and electricity supplies for vulnerable families. This father wonders whether “we should just sit and watch our children shower with cold water” and he states that people must fight for the suspended bill and for the current 24/2015 law passed in July by the Catalan parliament which presently allows the Catalan government to guarantee energy supplies to homes despite the Constitutional Court’s recent ruling.
The argument of who has the authority
The Constitutional Court’s ruling that struck down the Catalan energy law claims that the government of Catalonia has no authority to pass legislation on this matter because the protection of vulnerable end-users is regulated by Spain’s electric sector law and fossil fuel legislation, whereby Spain opts for a subsidy system rather than banning power cut-offs. This means that it is the administration who foots the bill instead of the energy distribution companies. Ricardo complains that “in short, it is us, the people, who end up paying the bills while energy companies see their profits soar”.
The situation is similar to what happened with the banking tax that the Generalitat brought in and the CC ruled unconstitutional. Its application in Catalonia is subject to the policies in Spain as a whole. In the case of the poverty law, this week the Spanish parliament began to work on a bill (Law 25) proposed by Podemos which establishes that no struggling families may have their water, gas or electricity supply cut off during the winter months. Nevertheless, the bill is unlikely to become a law because fresh elections in Spain will mean that the parliament will cease to convene and the bill will be dropped.
Regardless of the conflict over who has the power to legislate, European directives on gas and electricity (2009/73/EC and 2009/72/EC) urge all member states to take steps so as to protect the more vulnerable consumers, one of which is a ban on cut-offs for non-payment, a measure that has been adopted by 40 per cent of EU countries, including France and the UK, according to a report by the European Commission.
The European Parliament passes a non-binding resolution to stop disconnections
On Thursday the Catalan government’s spokesperson, Neus Munté, applauded the European Parliament’s decision, which is “consistent” with Catalonia’s fight against poverty. Munté’s words came after the European chamber passed a resolution demanding “a guarantee that during a defined winter period no household can be cut off from energy or that those who are must be reconnected”.
To be precise, the Parliament passed the resolution with 310 votes in favour, 73 against and 26 abstentions. The non-binding resolution was drafted by Hungarian MEP Tamás Meszerics, who demands “a heating disconnection moratorium”. Meszerics remarks that “we believe a moratorium to be imperative; nobody should die in Europe because of lack of heating”.
Speaking for the Catalan News Agency, Meszerics welcomed the idea that regional administrations —and not just national governments— should also be allowed to act on cases of energy poverty. “If a regional government is able to finance —at least partly— this policy, I don’t see why it shouldn’t go ahead and do it”, he claimed.