The EU's internal market commissioner Michel Barnier wants more transparency on fees consumers pay when making payments abroad, in a move that could replicate the approach taken with mobile phone operators whose so-called "roaming" fees were capped.
"We will propose legislation on a framework for bank fees," a spokeswoman for Barnier told Reuters earlier this month, saying the Commission's patience had run out after failed attempts by the sector to self-regulate.
"There has been a process for the last year to try and sort this out via self-regulation with the banking industry, but it's not worked," she said.
EU officials said proposals will be tabled "by end 2012-beginning 2013" and could include caps on banking fees similar to the ones imposed on mobile phone operators in the so-called "roaming" regulation.
The European Commission has already pushed legislation on mobile phone roaming, an EU source told EURACTIV, adding that "the door is not closed" to something similar on banking fees.
The roaming regulation, passed in 2007, imposed maximum prices on calls made between European countries, with the objective of eliminating differences with national tariffs. The move attracted furious reactions from telecom operators who labelled the Commission initiative as "populist".
However, a similar approach for banking fees could only be applied "provided you can demonstrate that the prices are excessive in relation to costs," an EU source said.
The Commission could intervene if it can establish that banks are slapping undue charges on cross-border payments, the source went on, stressing that "it must be cross-border" for Brussels to step in.
"A European regulation on retail prices for banking would make no sense," the source explained, saying that pricing of cash withdrawals at ATMs should not be decided at European level.
Deadline not met
Barnier had set a 15 September deadline for banks to come clean on fees they charge customers or face mandatory transparency rules.
"I am disappointed with the response from European banks with the request I put to them a year ago asking for more transparency," Barnier told a news conference in July. "We think the fees should be easy to understand across the board, with comparable fees charged for comparable services. That is not the case today," he said.
If banks did not take his request seriously by 15 September, Barnier had said the Commission would take "legislative action with a view to introducing more standardisation across European markets".
A 2009 report by the European Commission had criticised the price structures of current accounts as "very opaque, making it almost impossible for consumers to know how much they are paying and to compare different offers."