Agreement reached averting US withdrawal from the Universal Postal Union

UPDATE:  September 25, 2019. An agreement was reached averting the United States withdrawal from the United Postal Union (UPU).

The UN agency linking postal systems worldwide has agreed to reform its fee structure under a proposal by the United States that averted the US administration's threat to leave the global network but may mean many consumers pay more.

The compromise deal was agreed by consensus on September 25th at the Universal Postal Union’s emergency congress after two days of talks, with delegates standing to applaud.


Washington, DC August 7, 2019  --  If you have never heard of the Universal Postal Union (UPU), it’s for a good reason. As the body responsible for setting rules and rates for international mail delivery from its base in Bern, it maintains a cherished stature of near invisibility. UPU oversight enables smooth mail delivery across borders and low-friction international commerce. Last year, the Trump Administration gave notice that the US intends to withdraw from the UPU by October 2019 unless substantial changes are made to the tariff structure in place. The principal complaint voiced by the Trump Administration was a tariff structure which it considers unfair and unduly burdensome for the US Postal Service, as well as US businesses.

The UPU’s 192 member states periodically agree a fixed remuneration known as “terminal dues” owed to the postal operator of the delivery country. China’s terminal dues were fixed in 1969, and favored Chinese shippers with very low rates commensurate with China’s status as a lesser-developed country. In the absence of modification, this low rate has come to provide a cost savings windfall to Chinese shippers, creating an annual deficit for the US Postal Service of roughly $300 million. Small packet shipments to US customers cost Chinese shippers much less than US shippers pay for the same item to be sent to a US customer.

The negative effects of a withdrawal would be felt first and foremost within the US economy. A complete withdrawal from the UPU is hardly an option, given the massive transactions costs it would imply for American buyers and foreign sellers. The volume of commercial traffic involved, and the preponderant role the US plays in the international postal and global trade systems render this an unfeasible prospect. In a sense, the UPU is “too big to fail”, and as a result the US will, in the opinion of most experts, do whatever is required to ensure a rapid resolution of the problem well in advance of the US departure date of October, 2019.

Indeed, cognizant of the stakes involved, the UPU has indicated that a solution may be at hand, announcing in June 2019 that its Members have voted to convene an Extraordinary Congress in September to discuss the terminal dues system. ACA welcomes this development and encourages the parties to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution which will ensure continued fluidity of trade relations and postal mail delivery, a vital component of the machinery enabling voting by US citizens overseas, as well as, ensuring communications between US citizens overseas and the US administrative offices, such as the IRS and the Social Security Administration.

In the event the September Congress does not provide a satisfactory solution, the US may attempt to dictate its own terminal dues in the immediate aftermath of a unilateral withdrawal, and the duration of a transition period would be impossible to predict. In the unlikely event such a situation arises, it will be essential that State legislatures respond by ensuring that voter registration, ballot request and ballot documents have submission and receipt deadlines which take into account prevailing international mail delivery times. Careful planning would be vital for ensuring that such a scenario has minimal impact on the integrity of the voting process.

Additionally, IRS communication with taxpayers is heavily dependent on reliable and expeditious delivery of international mail, and since no one knows the extent to which a failure to conclude a follow-on UPU agreement will perturb mail delivery, the consequences of such a failure could potentially be dire for the overseas taxpaying community. The recently introduced legislation revoking otherwise valid passports of taxpayers who have failed to pay IRS bills of $50 000 or more (indexed to inflation) may create an additional risk to overseas Americans. Revocation of a valid passport, particularly when a citizen is traveling and/or lacks a second nationality, is an extremely troubling prospect - one that US citizens overseas will certainly want to avoid. ACA will closely monitor the progress of the September Congress and forcefully advocate in favor of a rapid resolution of this ongoing dispute.

Roland Crim
ACA Director, Voting Team and Chairman of ACA Switzerland Chapter