Negotiators have reached agreement over a proposed EU directive ensuring that all European citizens have access to a basic bank account, including previously excluded groups such as refugees, foreign students, and blue card holders.
European Parliament and member state negotiators have reached a political agreement yesterday (20 March) on the proposal, which aims to make bank accounts accessible to all, transparent and easier to switch to.
"In today's world, not having access to a basic bank account makes it difficult and more expensive to participate in everyday life – paying the electricity bill or receiving a salary for example," said Michel Barnier, the EU internal market commissioner who led the project.
"The Directive will make it easier for consumers to search for better offers and lower costs for their bank accounts and change bank accounts if they want to," Barnier said in a statement welcoming the deal.
The European Commission-led project aims to harmonise the opening of bank accounts for European citizens in all credit institutions, ensuring the transparency of banking fees and facilitate account switching.
The Commission sees this as a necessary measure, as more than 58 million EU citizens do not own a basic bank account and large disparities exist between member states.
Although the French banking federation records 99% bank account penetration rates, the Commission highlights that almost half of the population in Romania and Bulgaria do not have an account at all.
The proposal was not without controversy, however, and ran into opposition from the United Kingdom and its powerful financial services sector.
In a letter sent to EU lawmakers, the British treasury asked decision-makers in Brussels to give member states the choice of self regulation by the banking sector, claiming this would be sufficient to guarantee affordable payment accounts to European citizens.
In the Commission’s proposal, article 15 establishes a right of access to a payment account with basic features for every European consumer, and “establishes an obligation on Member States to designate at least one payment service provider to offer a basic payment account.”
The last agreement reached between the Commission, the member states and the European Parliament allowed for regulation via existing national measures.
The text of the agreement outlined that “the member states can choose that the contents of paragraphs one to five be ensured through existing measures, established through national law or otherwise, as long as the other requirements of chapter four are met.”
Civil right groups ring the alarm
The result of a study led by a French consumer association shows that over “40% of French people had trouble changing bank account due to simple errors in the system” and that “31% of consumers did not finalise their account change.”
However, the new restrictive rules proposed by the Commission do not please everyone. “In France, numerous measures are already in place to facilitate comparability of banking fees, banking mobility and access to a bank account” highlighted the Banking Federation of France at the presentation of the banking directive in May 2013. The organisation denounces “the establishment of a legal framework which would cause more problems without ameliorating consumer service or meeting previously expressed concerns.”
The Greens group in the European Parliament hailed the agreement. "With over 30 million citizens without any bank account in the EU, this is an important and overdue measure," said German MEP Sven Giegold, the Green's finance spokesperson.
"Crucial provisions, insisted on by the Greens, will ensure previously excluded groups - like refugees, visiting students from distant countries or blue card holders - can open a basic bank account, which is essential for daily life in modern society," Giegold said in a statement.
"Importantly, the proposed rules will also ensure information on account charges is more transparent and easily comprehensible for consumers. Consumers will be able to better compare the prices and services of checking accounts online. Importantly, this can also include information on the network of branches and ATMs offered by banks, if at all. This feature aims at promoting competition of quality, instead of a competition merely focused on prices favouring internet banking over local banks."
In modern societies like the countries of the European Union, daily life is very difficult for those sections of the population that do not have access to a bank account.
Routine activities like receiving income or benefits, paying utility bills or purchasing goods and services are a major challenge for people without bank accounts.
Despite this, around almost 58 million do not have an account, according to the Commission, preventing them from fully benefiting from the EU's single market.