The European Commission has opened an antitrust investigation into the development by banks of a standardised online payments system for the whole of Europe.
The European Commission is looking into the establishment of a standardised online payments system for Europe, to ensure it is not anti-competitive.
The banking industry, via its European Payments Council (EPC)
co-ordinating body, is in the process of setting up a Single Euro
Payments Area (Sepa). The self-regulatory project aims to eliminate any
differentiation between domestic and cross-border e-payments within a
zone encompassing the 27 EU member states, Iceland, Liechtenstein,
Norway, Switzerland and Monaco.
On Monday, the Commission gave its support to the
scheme, noting it could lead to "greater efficiencies", plus better prices
and services for consumers.
However, it said it also wants to "ensure that competition
is not unduly restricted, for example through the exclusion of new
entrants and payment providers who are not controlled by a bank".
Under its Digital Agenda, the Commission is pushing to create a single digital economy across Europe, and Sepa forms a part of those plans. The agenda calls for harmonised rules across e-commerce, among other areas, and the Commission has already moved to introduce pan-European business phone numbers, for instance
If outside payment processors are not included in Sepa, it could result in higher prices for e-commerce businesses and their customers, the Commission argued. It added it is opening the investigation only to gather the information needed to "take a final position" on the matter.
The investigation follows a complaint that will form part of the Commission's enquiries. It is not clear who made the complaint. Antitrust investigations are a major, formal step,
and are not initiated lightly.
Need for an efficient system
Joaquín Almunia, the EU's competition commissioner, said the need for
secure and efficient online payment services within the Sepa zone is pressing, given rapid take-up of the internet.
"I therefore welcome the work of the European Payments Council to
develop standards in this area. In principle, standards promote
inter-operability and competition, but we need to ensure that the
standardisation process does not unnecessarily restrict opportunities
for non-participants," he said.
In a statement on Tuesday, the EPC said it did not support the
suggestion that its work could end up discriminating against new
"The EPC is continuously providing full and transparent information
available to all stakeholders, including the European Commission, on
the EPC's activities in the area of online
payments," EPC chair Gerard Hartsink said. "To date, related work
remains in progress and no final documentation has been
Hartsink also said his organisation is just doing what the
Commission had asked it to do, "in line with market needs".
"The EPC requires that the European Commission aligns its views on
the merit of market integration and innovation on the one hand, and
competition on the other," Hartsink added. "Inconsistencies between
the European Commission's objectives continue to hamper the Sepa
The Commission has not provided its full rationale for the decision to launch a probe. This will
follow in the coming days or weeks, a spokesperson for Almunia told
ZDNet UK on Tuesday.
The opening of the investigation means national competition
regulators and courts are forbidden from making decisions regarding
the implications of the EPC's project. The Commission also
stressed there are no legal deadlines for the
completion of its antitrust investigations.
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