Chirac gets tough on post

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Series Details Vol 2, No 45 (05.12.96)
Publication Date 05/12/1996
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Bowing to political realities at home, the French government is pulling out all the stops to keep its post office's monopoly over the provision of mail services.

President Jacques Chirac, dissatisfied with the chaotic outcome of a crunch meeting of EU communications ministers last week, has called for the issue to be discussed at next week's Dublin summit.

The move comes after a Franco-German compromise proposal to postpone the liberalisation of direct and cross-border mail until at least 2003 was blocked by a minority of member states.

Having only just emerged from a crippling strike by truck drivers, the French government is not prepared to countenance protests from staff at La Poste over the redundancies and changes to working practices they fear liberalisation will bring.

At the same time, the French are also lobbying hard to prevent the European Commission from adopting a notice setting out how normal EU competition rules will be applied to the postal sector.

Their Commissioners are likely to oppose a proposal to publish the notice when it is debated by the full College next week, while the European Parliament is expected to back a report from centre-right French MEP Georges de Brémond d'Ars calling for its withdrawal.

When he released the draft notice a year ago, Competition Commissioner Karel van Miert made it clear that the final version would be published together with a general liberalisation agreement or - if this did not happen - at the latest by the end of 1996.

The notice would specify that post offices should publish transparent accounts showing in which activities profits are made and where their cash flow is spent, and would oblige profitable operations to take on a proportional share of the costs of their loss-making services.

Assuming the notice is published, express delivery firms will be able to file their complaints against post offices with the Commission with greater confidence that they will win.

Van Miert is already sitting on six complaints, including one from the International Express Carriers' Conference against the bulk remailing activities of post offices and another from UPS against Germany's Die Post - and he could choose to act on them now.

But a French official said this week: 'We have made our position on the notice very clear. The Commission should wait for the directive.'

The Commission's next move could well depend on the willingness of Dutch Communications Minister Annemarie Jorritsma-Lebbink to saddle herself with this thankless dossier when she chairs ministerial meetings in the first half of 1997.

The minister has spent this week on a tour of European capitals and has heard the views of French Post Minister François Fillon and his German counterpart Wolfgang Bötsch.

The Commission's draft directive would allow post offices to keep their monopoly on basic letter services (the collection, sorting and delivery of letters weighing up to 350 grams), as well as incoming cross-border mail and direct mail until 2001 only.

The French cannot accept this time-scale, and their compromise deal with the Germans came within a whisker of being accepted at last week's meeting, winning the support of Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal, Greece and Italy.

But Austria - which had been expected to side with the French and Germans - switched camps at the last moment, ensuring that those opposed to the deal, led by the Dutch and the Nordic countries, were able to muster enough votes to block it.

But this may become irrelevant if Chirac gets his way. He has already written to Commission President Jacques Santer asking for a decision on postal liberalisation to be taken unanimously, and may win other EU leaders over to his cause in Dublin.

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