|Far-reaching proposals by the European Commission to open up postal services to greater competition were reined in by MEPs, who were determined that even people living in remote areas should continue to have their post delivered at an affordable price. At the European Parliament's insistence, the liberalisation of mail services will be more gradual and carefully controlled than initially planned, so enabling a better balance to be struck between economic efficiency and social needs.
Postal services throughout the EU are estimated to handle 135 billion items a year, generating a turnover of approximately 80 billion euros. The big challenge nowadays is to preserve "universal service" (a daily collection and delivery service at affordable prices to every address, even in remote areas) whilst making the postal sector competitive enough to survive in a constantly shifting communications environment.
In a draft directive aimed at taking the first steps towards liberalising the mail industry, the Commission suggested opening up some postal services to competition, with full completion of the internal market in these services to follow at a later date. However, Parliament was concerned that even this proposal went too far, too soon. As a result of MEPs' pressure, the legislation was significantly altered. The initial stages of liberalisation will be phased in more gently than the Commission wanted and Parliament will have a crucial say in what happens next.
Ordinary letter deliveries safeguarded
In its final shape, the postal services directive does not apply to the collection and delivery of national mail, or incoming cross-border mail, weighing less than 50g. Since the sub-50g category constitutes the vast bulk of the letters market, ordinary letters will for the time being continue to be collected and delivered, as they are now, by "universal service operators" (which generally means the national post office).
However, Parliament was also keen to ensure that mail in the next category up, weighing between 50g and 100g, should continue to be the preserve of universal service operators for a longer period (2003-2006) than envisaged by the Commission. In addition, MEPs argued that total liberalisation of outgoing cross-border mail was too drastic a measure and insisted that Member States should be able to ringfence this sector "to the extent necessary to ensure the provision of universal service", which in practice means to enable post offices to use the revenue from this market segment to subsidise their universal service.
A gradual timetable
The timetable for introducing competition laid down in the new legislation was as follows:
- from 2003, delivery of mail weighing more than 100g or costing more than three times the price of a standard letter;
- from 2006, delivery of mail weighing more than 50g or costing two-and-a-half times the price of a standard letter;
- from 2003, all outgoing cross-border mail except where a Member State considers the revenue from this market segment is needed to support the universal service.
Looking further ahead, Parliament also managed to lengthen the timetable envisaged by the Commission for the next stage of liberalisation. It rejected the Commission’s original dates, which would have meant taking a decision at the end of 2005 on whether to open up the postal market from 1 January 2007 onwards. Instead, the directive requires the Commission to complete a study in 2006 assessing, for each Member State, the impact on universal services if the internal market for postal services were to be completed in 2009. On the basis of that study, the Commission must submit new draft legislation to Parliament and the Council of Ministers. They will then either confirm the date of 2009 for the completion of the internal postal market or suggest other steps.
To keep a careful eye on what is happening, Parliament pressed for the Commission to report to it every two years - on the first occasion by the end of 2004 - on developments in the industry. As Parliament will have the power to amend any further legislation, MEPs can make sure that the postman always rings once a day, if not twice.