By John O'Donnell
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's executive pledged on Wednesday to improve access to clean water across the region, responding to a 1.9-million-strong petition from citizens demanding recognition of their right to water.
The "Citizens' Initiative" is the first time ordinary Europeans have been able to influence legislation and provides a rare glimpse as to what many people expect of Brussels as the region prepares for EU elections.
The move follows a groundswell of opposition, from Germany to Portugal, to any sell-off of water supplies, a move citizens fear could push up prices or even result in cut-offs if they cannot afford to pay them.
"Europe's citizens have spoken, and today the Commission gave a positive response," said Maros Sefcovic, Vice-President of the European Commission.
"Water quality, infrastructure, sanitation and transparency will all benefit ... as a direct result of this first-ever exercise in pan-European, citizen-driven democracy."
The success of the initiative, which required citizens to register their passport number when signing the petition, is likely to be followed by others including a movement demanding action to protect the human embryo.
The European Commission, which drafts legislation for the 28-country bloc, said it would consult with the public about changing EU law. But The Right2Water campaign said its response was limp.
"The reaction of the European Commission lacks any real ambition," said Jan Willem Goudriaan, vice-president of Right2Water. "I regret that there is no proposal for legislation recognizing the human right to water."
Late last year, the Right2Water campaign submitted its proposal that this right should be enshrined in EU law and that public, not private companies should provide water.
More than half of its signatures came from Germany after the campaign received a lift when a local comedian argued against water privatization on television, reflecting wide public concerns over the selling-off of water companies.
Gerald Haefner, a Green lawmaker in the European Parliament, was also critical of the EU executive's plan and said it must outline what steps it would take.
"The Commission's response is vague and it must be swiftly followed up with concrete proposals," he said.
The citizens' initiative, designed to bring lawmaking closer to the EU's 500 million people, requires 1 million signatures across at least seven EU countries - although it does not guarantee new legislation.
Some are rejected at the outset, including a campaign to have the European anthem sung in Esperanto, a made-up language that proponents believed would reinforce a common European identity.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)