The European Central Bank and European Union competition regulators said cross-border and national fees on direct debit payments on a per-transaction basis may violate antitrust rules and should be phased out.

The European Commission, the European Union's antitrust authority, said Tuesday that "a general per transaction multilateral interchange fee for direct debit transactions doesn't seem justified for efficiency reasons."

Direct debit payments are typically used by consumers to pay for recurring payments, such as utility bills, rents, and subscriptions.

Interchange fees are paid between banks on each transaction and ultimately passed on to retailers and cardholders. Neelie Kroes, the European Union's competition commissioner, has likened the fee to a tax driving up prices on all consumers.

The central bank and the commission said jointly that the fee should be replaced with a new "mechanism" after Nov. 1, 2012, as part of a new direct debit plan that is included in the shift to the Single Euro Payments Area initiative. Both agencies said they are encouraging "the European Payments Council to launch the Sepa direct debit scheme on Nov. 1, 2009."

EuroCommerce, a trade group representing retailers, said it will be difficult for banks to establish that the fee is justified.

"Today's statement shows that the commission and the ECB have seen sense on this crucial issue," Xavier Durieu, head of EuroCommerce, said in a press release.

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