European Union regulators have ordered a French group of banks, including BNP Paribas SA and Societe Generale SA, to scrap illegal debit card fees that prevented competitors from issuing cards at cheaper rates.
The European Commission said Wednesday that an agreement on tariffs by the Paris-based Groupement des Cartes Bancaires restricts competition. The group said it is considering an appeal of the decision.
"Consumers are the victims of this illegal practice, which deprives them of cheaper cards," the Brussels regulator said in a press release.
The ruling came as the European Union pushes to increase competition in the payment card services industry. It began probing banking fees in June 2004. The commission, the European Union's antitrust regulator, fined Visa $14.5 million on Oct. 3 for blocking competition by refusing to let Morgan Stanley offer card services.
The regulator is also probing MasterCard International Inc. for allegedly restricting competition between banks by setting minimum fees for retailers that accept its cards. Jonathan Todd, a commission spokesman, said the regulator would decide the MasterCard case "as soon as possible."
Internet banks and the retailer Groupe Auchan SA were among those prevented from issuing cards at competitive rates because of the group's fees, Mr. Todd said.
The probe focused on a measure known as Mecanisme Regulateur de la Fonction Acquereur, that determined whether a fee of as much as $15.62 should be paid by member banks on each card.
The pricing system was suspended in 2004, pending the European Union's decision. The group intended to apply the rates even though they had been suspended, Mr. Todd said. Competitors did not issue cards at cheaper rates because they feard the "threat" of the Cartes Bancaires fees, he said.
Cartes Bancaires said in a statement that it disagrees with the regulator's legal arguments and economic analysis and will consider appealing to the European Court of First Instance.
Cartes Bancaires manages the "CB" card, which accounts for more than 70% of card payments in France, the European Union said. Debit cards issued in France with the MasterCard and Visa logos operate within the CB system, the commission said.
The group was not fined because it submitted the accord to the European Union for approval, the commission said.