Postal services liberalisation


The EU is entering the final stages of a 15-year process to open up its postal services to competition, having overcome differences of opinion regarding the speed of liberalisation and how to ensure a universal service for consumers. The real test will however come with the implementation phase as of 2009.

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The postal sector is of major economic importance, affecting the competitiveness of other sectors, generating an annual turnover of approximately 1% of EU GDP, and providing employment to around 1.7 million people. 

Efforts towards reforming the postal market began in the early 1990s, as part of the push to create a European single market. The aim was to: 

  • get national monopolies to open up to competition in order to make postal services cheaper, faster, more efficient and more innovative – similarly to what was done in the telecom and energy sectors; 
  • harmonise performance across member states; 
  • improve the quality of cross-border services, and; 
  • respond to the rise in electronic alternatives to mail, which many feared would lead to a decline in physical mail volumes, although in reality, domestic letter post volumes have remained stable since 2002. 

The first Postal Services Directive, adopted in 1997 (97/67/EC), and a second one, adopted in 2002 (2002/39/EC), succeeded in opening up a number of postal services, including the delivery of parcels and express services, but stopped short of imposing competition for the delivery of letters weighing less than 50 grammes. 

Incumbent operators were entitled to hold onto this so-called “reserved area” – which represents more than 70% of all letter post in the EU and around 60% of all revenues from postal services – in order to keep up their role of “universal service provider” (USP). 

But, on 18 October 2006, Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy confirmed, in his 
proposal for a third Postal Services Directive
, the Commission’s intention to eliminate all remaining obstacles to a single postal market and to abolish this reserved area as of 2009 – a date already suggested in the previous Directives.