30th May 2023

European postal services open to competition by 2011

  • The new measure will deliver liberalisation in the 22 member states that have not yet opened up the sector (Photo: EUobserver)

Europe's postal services are to be opened up to full competition by 2011 under plans adopted by the European Parliament today (31 January).

The remaining postal service monopolies will expire by 31 December, 2010, with central and eastern European member states as well as Greece and Luxembourg having until 2013 to open their postal markets.

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From this date, public postal service providers will have to compete with private firms in the delivery of mail weighing up to 50 grams.

"This is a clear signal for all member states and all citizens that the traditional monopolies have to prepare for competition," said MEP Markus Ferber, the centre-right German EP in charge of the dossier in response to the parliament's plenary vote.

"Citizens will have more possibilities with more products available, prices will go down, the quality is going to be improved. The European Parliament has decided today in the interests of people in the EU", he added.

The plan includes a "universal service" provision that aims to ensure everybody, even in remote or poor areas, will still be able to send and receive letters and parcels just as they do today. Even after liberalisation, every EU citizen has a right to delivery and collection of post at least once a day, five days a week.

Furthermore, customers in both central London and the Shetland Isles or a business park in Helsinki and northernmost Finnish Lapland should pay the same rate, as a uniform tariff between urban and rural areas must continue to be applied.

If such universal service proves too costly for providers, member states will be permitted to either set up a common fund to which all postal service providers contribute, or provide state funding.

Full, or near-full marketisation of post has already occurred in Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. The new measure will deliver liberalisation in the remaining 22 member states.

Up to now, postal services in the Union had been covered by a 1997 directive that opened up the sector to competition for mail weighing more than 350 grams – essentially large packages – the most profitable sector of the postal market. Items under 350 grams were designated 'reserved areas'.

In 2002, the reserved area was amended down to 100 grams, and as of January, 2006, no mail delivery of items over 50 grams could be monopolised by a national provider.

Following today's vote, all member states will have to eliminate this last reserved area by 2011.

Greece has been given an extra two-year grace period due to its unusual geography, which makes postal delivery both difficult and expensive, and Luxembourg has been given its own allowances due to its small size.

Postal services in the EU handle an estimated 135 billion items per year, according to commission figures, with an estimated turnover of €88 billion and employing some 5.2 million people across the bloc.

Not all MEPs supported the move, with left-wing members worried liberalisation will hurt both consumers and employees in the postal sector.

Portuguese GUE/NGL MEP Pedro Guerreiro said the directive is part of "an ongoing process of dismantling and destroying public services and it puts publicly managed and democratically controlled infrastructures at risk."

Trade unionists are also opposed to postal liberalisation. The European Trade Union Congress is worried that despite the universal service guarantee, the move is being approved "without any clear indication of how postal services to rural, mountain and island-dwelling citizens will be financed."

"[The commission] continues to push for sectoral liberalisation without putting in place a general framework to guarantee respect for principles such as equal access, high-quality services, fair prices, universality, security and social justice."

Opponents point to the UK, where postal liberalisation is already quite advanced. In Britain, there have been thousands of post office closures in recent years, mostly in rural areas. Only around 1,500 of 8,000 rural post offices are profitable, they say.

An amendment proposed by Richard Howitt, a British Labour MEP, supporting free postal services for the blind did not gain enough support to be included in the legislation.

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