American Express Co. launched a preemptive strike at Visa International to prevent the bank card association from inhibiting its overseas expansion.
On Tuesday, the New York-based card giant filed an unfair-competition complaint with the European Commission in Brussels.
American Express alleges that Visa's board will vote soon on whether to implement a proposed bylaw that would prevent banks abroad from issuing a competitor's card brand, such as American Express.
American Express believes that the policy would violate European laws on competition.
"We are surprised that American Express has decided to file a complaint with the European Commission and comment publicly on internal and as yet unresolved matters within Visa," the association responded in a prepared statement.
American Express learned of the bylaw through "solid sources," said John A. Crew, president of consumer services group in Europe.
The complaint, he said, was a move to thwart Visa from going forward with this idea, and to mobilize the European Commission.
The commission could investigate the matter even before Visa decides whether it will adopt the bylaw.
At the heart of the issue is American Express' new strategy for penetrating smaller international markets. About 18 months ago, American Express began partnering with banks to issue American Express cards in local currencies.
American Express has card operations in more than 160 countries, but it issues cards in local currency only in the 30 largest markets, such as England, France, Germany, and Japan.
So far, six banks in smaller markets are selling American Express cards to their customers.
This sort of coziness between the banking community and American Express is clearly distasteful to Visa.
"This is a developing part of our strategy," said Mr. Crew, "and this is why Visa is increasing the urgency of getting such a bylaw passed."
"We are considering ways of allowing banks to be competitive by offering consumers whatever payment cards they wish, whilst ensuring that competitors cannot enjoy a free ride on 20 years of international cooperation and investment," said Visa's statement.
This latest scuffle between the card rivals recalls the 11 years of litigation between Visa and Dean Witter, Discover & Co., over a similar bylaw prohibiting competitors from issuing the Visa brand in the United States.
In September 1994, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Dean Witter could not issue Visa cards through a failed savings and loan it had purchased for that purpose.
However, American Express was quick to point out that it is not interested in issuing Visa cards, rather it wants banks to issue American Express cards, and to help sign up card accepting merchants.
American Express maintains that many banks support its position against Visa, because if the bylaw is mandated, it would restrict them from offering consumers an array of products.
"The banks don't understand why Visa is limiting their options," said Jurgen Aumuller, president of American Express Europe.
Mr. Aumuller conceded that none of those banks have formally joined American Express in its filed complaint.
American Express does not want to be shut out of the bank network, which according to Mr. Aumuller distributes more than 90% of the credit cards in Europe.