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US demands dramatic reform of global postal union to avoid pull-out

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Geneva (AFP)

The United States said Tuesday that it was prepared to reconsider its decision to exit the UN agency that sets international postal rates, but only if it undergoes dramatic reform.

President Donald Trump's administration announced last October that it planned to withdraw from the Universal Postal Union, charging that the current system sets postal rates that unfairly penalise the United States while benefiting carriers in countries like China.

Washington, which made its announcement as trade tensions soared with China, said it would leave the UPU in a year unless the agency underwent radical changes.

Speaking before an emergency meeting of the UPU in Geneva, Trump's hardline trade advisor Peter Navarro said that he had spent the past 11 months "preparing for a possible seamless exit".

But he stressed that he had also worked closely with UPU chief Bishar Hussein and a range of countries in a bid to fix the so-called terminal dues system "that everyone in this room knows is broken."

The agency, which is based in Bern and comprises 192 member countries, sets lower prices for bulky letters and small parcels coming from emerging and developing countries, a group that still includes China.

This week's three-day meeting marks only the third extraordinary congress to be held in the UPU's 145-year-history.

Navarro has maintained that under the current system it costs more to send a package from Los Angeles to New York than from Beijing to New York, putting US small businesses and manufacturers at an unfair disadvantage.

According to Washington, it costs the US $300-500 million annually under the current system.

- 'Very real money' -

That is "very, very real money", Navarro told several journalists Monday evening.

Navarro told Tuesday's meeting that "there are only two acceptable outcomes" of the talks.

Both options involve the US postal service immediately being allowed to charge similar rates for delivering packages from abroad to those it charges for domestic mailers.

The US would prefer a system in which all members of the UPU be allowed to "immediately self-declare rates", he said, but added that Washington was willing to accept a "multi-speed option", under which other countries could move over to self-declared rates gradually over a five-year period.

A number of other countries also spoke out in favour of serious reform Tuesday.

"It is clear that the current system doesn't work for all countries," South Africa's Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams told the assembly, while the Australian representative urged countries to agree on a "more equitable and more sustainable" system.

A Chinese representative meanwhile said his country supported "reform" but would like to see a "feasible and balanced solution", and to "prevent irrational practice."

If no deal is reached and the US withdraws, it is unclear what the impact would be.

eBay at least appears concerned, with its grassroots network recently cautioning that such a move could lead to "increased costs and service disruptions, and global mail delivery could even come to a halt."

Warnings have also been sounded about the implications for US military members abroad sending packages home, and for Americans abroad wanting to participate in elections by sending postal ballots home.

Navarro insisted to journalists that Washington anticipates "absolutely no disruption in military, election and holiday mail."

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