EU pushes through postal services liberalisation

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Member states have reached a compromise deal to liberalise postal services in the EU by 2011, following 20 years of Commission-led negotiations to open up the sector. Luxembourg and ten other member states were granted two-year exemptions.

With the exception of Luxembourg, EU member states endorsed a Portuguese Presidency compromise during the Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council in Luxembourg yesterday (1 October).

The deal reflects a first-reading agreement reached by Parliament in July (EURACTIV 12/07/07) and includes the following main elements:

  • Full postal liberalisation by 2011 (instead of the Commission’s preferred date of 2009), including for letters under 50 grammes;
  • The possibility of delaying opening markets until 2013 for Cyprus, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia;
  • Under a so-called reciprocity clause, member states that open their markets by 2011 can deny market access until 2013 to those member states that choose to delay liberalisation;
  • Minimum pay provisions and postal workers’ right to strike will not be affected by the law;
  • Universal Service Obligation (USO) – member states can dictate uniform tariffs between rural and urban areas, sufficient access to post offices and minimum delivery requirements.

Financing provisions for USOs will be decided by member states, who can either fund the service with monies from state coffers or oblige operators to pay into a common fund. The Commission, which reserves the right to scrutinise the financing plans, will be required to help member states to calculate the cost of universal services.

EU Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy welcomed the deal as a "huge" opportunity for the postal sector, "provided it reinvents itself", he said. 

McCreevy has argued that changes in communications technologies and practices "poses a threat for those postal operators that fail to adapt". The "only option is to reform and to adapt, to turn the challenge into an opportunity", he said following the Parliament's vote in July.

Striking a different tone to the generally anti-liberalising views of his President Nicolas Sarkozy, France's state secretary for trade and enterprise Hervé Novelli said that there is "no reason to fear a hike in tariffs". The "rights of consumers are assured" in the deal, he added.

Valeria Fagone of the Free and Fair Post Initiative welcomed the agreement after "a very long and difficult process". But she also expressed the organisation's disappointment over the two-year delay granted to some member states, saying it "sends a negative signal".

PUG, the Postal Users Group, is "relieved that the politicians have finally agreed to fixed dates for full market opening. However, we hope this does not mean that the other advantages provided in the Commission's draft Directive have been watered down by political consideration”, the group said in a statement.

Postal workers unions in a number of member states, such as France and Portugal, oppose the plans and have promised to strike. Rolf Büttner, president of UNI Postal, which represents trade unions in the postal sector, is convinced that liberalisation will lead to thousands of job losses and "worse service" for citizens in remote areas.  

European postal services have already been substantially liberalised over the past decade. However, incumbents have retained the right to maintain a lucrative monopoly over the delivery of letters in the "reserved area" - those weighing less than 50 grammes - in return for an affordable, five-days-per-week delivery service even to citizens in remote areas.

Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK have staunchly defended the Commission's liberalisation plans and are seeking to open up new markets for their national operators. 

But postal workers across Europe, as well as national operators in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland, Hungary and other new member states say that the timeline proposed by the Commission would destroy public operators, resulting in weaker customer service and large job losses (EURACTIV 07/06/07). 

  • Feb/Mar 2008: Parliament expected to endorse the proposal during its second-reading vote.

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