Interview: Portugal eyes end to ‘mail battle’

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Mário Lino, Portugal’s minister in charge of postal affairs, has spoken to EURACTIV about his hopes of clinching a political agreement on the sensitive subject of opening up national mail services to full competition, at a meeting of EU transport and communications ministers next week.

Member states are close to reaching a political agreement on a contentious proposal by the Commission to open up their postal markets to full competition, Portugal’s Public Works, Transport and Communications Minister Mário Lino told EURACTIV, ahead of a crucial meeting of transport and telecommunications ministers in Luxembourg on 1 October. 

According to Lino, whose country currently holds the six-month rotating EU Presidency, a compromise proposal, which he tabled earlier this month, should bring “a considerable number of more reluctant partners” into agreement. “All the signs we receive are positive,” he added. 

His proposal takes up a number of considerations expressed by the European Parliament in its first reading vote (EURACTIV 12/07/07), including: 

  • Rejection of the Commission’s proposal to complete market opening in all 27 member states by 1 January 2009. “Especially after the vote in the EP, it was our conclusion that no agreement was possible on the date proposed by the Commission. I’m sure the Commission will draw the same conclusions,” he explained, adding: “We should see the final date for the opening of the market in the context: postal services have been for centuries a state monopoly. We are now speaking of a maximum of two years to complete the process. In the timeline of the history of the postal services, this represents almost nothing.” 
  • two-stage opening, as of 31 December 2010, but with the possibility of extending this deadline until 31 December 2012, for Greece, Luxembourg and the 12 new member states. “We share the view of the European Parliament that some member states should be provided the option of a further delay of two years for opening up their markets. This only applies to Greece and Luxembourg, for the characteristics of their postal markets or their particular geographical situation, and to the countries that have joined the postal reform at a later stage.” Nevertheless, he added: “Our hope is that, among these 14 countries, some of them will decide to implement the Directive at an earlier stage, or not profit at all from that possibility.” 
  • ‘reciprocity clause’, aimed at avoiding distortions of competition during the transition phase, by preventing postal operators in countries that maintain a reserved area from entering markets that have already been fully opened. According to Lino, such a tool provides “a fair solution”. 

The Portuguese minister, who stresses that his country would have been ready for total liberalisation in 2009, says that he is not worried about a potential deterioration in the quality of postal services for citizens once the sector is liberalised. 

“I’m confident that universal service will continue to be provided to the highest standards, and even improved. We foresaw and included all the possible safeguards in the legislative text. Also, independent national regulators will be closely monitoring the market. It was a common and major concern of all member states to guarantee a high-quality universal service to users in every point of our territories.” 


To read the full interview, please click here.
 

In October 2006, EU Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy presented plans to dissolve lingering monopolies in the mail market and open up Europe's €88 billion postal sector to full competition by 1 January 2009. 

European postal services have already been substantially liberalised during the past decade. However, incumbents have retained the right to maintain a lucrative monopoly over the delivery of letters weighing less than 50 grammes, in return for them providing all citizens with an affordable five-day per week delivery service. 

The Commission now wants to get rid of this so-called reserved area to make it easier for new operators to enter the market. It says that increased competition will lead to  cheaper, faster and more innovative service-provision. 

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 a weaker customer service and big job cuts. 

On the other hand, countries in which liberalisation is already under way or finalised, including the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, have staunchly defended the Commission's proposal. They say that the 20-year liberalisation process has already dragged on far too long and are seeking to open up new markets for their national operators. 

  • 1 Oct. 2007: EU ministers due to reach a political agreement at the Transport and Telecommunications Council.

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