Postal reform comes under Parliament scrutiny

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The European Parliament will, on 10 July 2007, vote on controversial plans to open up European postal markets to competition – a move feared by trade unions and lingering national monopolies, but which the Commission says is essential for the survival of the sector and will make services cheaper, faster and more innovative.

MEPs could, on 10 July 2007, endorse a compromise proposal that would see liberalisation delayed until as late as 2013 – four years later than initially proposed by the Commission. 

The text has already received the backing of Parliament’s three major political groups (EPP-ED, PES and ALDE) and was approved by the EP’s transport committee on 18 June 2007 (EURACTIV 19/06/07). 

It is widely viewed as an attempt to soothe detractors of the Commission’s initial proposal, following heavy lobbying by a dozen incumbent operators and protest strikes by trade unions, which see liberalisation as a threat to the sector’s two million jobs. 

It maintains the current universal service obligations for operators (five-day per week delivery at uniform tariffs) and introduces a number of rules aimed at safeguarding working conditions, minimum pay and the right to strike. 

Nevertheless, in an attempt to also win backing from the so-called front-runner countries that have been pushing for swifter liberalisation, the report also suggests introducing a reciprocity clause into the draft Directive. 

The clause would allow countries that have already fully opened their postal markets (such as in Sweden, Finland, the UK, and – if they go ahead with liberalisation as planned in 2008 – the Netherlands and Germany) to prohibit operators maintaining a partial monopoly after 2009 from entering their markets. 

According to German MEP Markus Ferber, who is rapporteur in Parliament, “this helps avoid protected monopolists to act as cannibals in liberalised markets”. But voices are already being raised on all sides with, among others, the German Federal Cartel Office rejecting the idea of selectively allowing only some competitors onto the German mail market. 

Bernhard Heitzer, head of the office, explained in a recent interview with WirtschaftsWoche magazine that this would limit expansion to those postal companies whose home market has already been liberalised. He said: “Such politically motivated limitations have proven a major obstacle in international trade too many times.”

Strong concerns also remain as to the viability of financing methods that have been proposed to replace the current reserved area system, which allows incumbent operators to maintain a monopoly on the collection and delivery of mail weighing less than 50 grammes. 

European postal workers will be staging a demonstration outside the Parliament on the day of the vote in the hope of convincing MEPs to reject any further market opening. They insist that 77% of Europeans are satisfied with their postal services and that liberalisation will only lead to “tremendous job losses”. 

UNI-Europa Post and Logistics John Pedersen said: “It’s crazy to decide dates for a full market opening without any evidence on the impact of such a decision and without clear solutions for the provision and financing of the universal service. The losers will be citizens, governments and taxpayers, small and medium size enterprises, most national post offices – and postal workers. The only winners will be some big mailers and some big and mostly multinational private operators.” 

Even if MEPs do agree on a compromise text, Europe will still be a long way from new legislation. as the EU’s 27 member states have until now been unable to reach a political agreement on the proposal. 

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