Visa Europe Ltd., operator of the European Union's largest payment-card network, was sent an antitrust complaint from EU regulators over the fees it charges to process cross-border credit-card payments.
Visa Europe's so-called multilateral interchange fees "harm competition between acquiring banks, inflate the cost of payment card acceptance for merchants and ultimately increase consumer prices," the European Commission said in an e-mailed statement today.
Card fees paid by retailers are "too high" and there isn't any sign that they've decreased since 2006, the EU's competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in May. Regulators last year settled an earlier probe into Visa Europe's fees for debit-card payments made outside a user's home country.
Visa Europe issues about 41 percent of all payment cards in Europe, the Brussels-based antitrust agency said. More than 5 million businesses in Europe accept its payments, which valued 1.8 trillion euros ($2.2 trillion) in 2010, the EU said.
"We are very disappointed that the commission has taken such a confrontational approach and was not willing to find a solution to support investment and innovation in European payment," Peter Ayliffe, chief executive officer of Visa Europe, said in an e-mailed statement.
Visa Europe can defend itself in writing or seek an oral hearing before EU regulators take a decision on fines that can amount to 10 percent of yearly sales. Visa Europe split from Visa Inc. before the U.S. card company's initial public offering in early 2008.
The Brussels-based antitrust agency said Visa Europe's fees restricted competition between banks and violated EU rules that outlaw cartels and restrictive business practices.
While the EU has previously said interchange fees aren't illegal, regulators said Visa Europe's fees weren't set in a way that would benefit consumers. They also said they doubted the company's argument that the fees are necessary to create efficiencies that benefited retailers and consumers.
The fee, based on Visa's guidelines, is paid by the retailer's bank to the bank that issued the customer's card. The EU's objections cover fees paid on cross-border transactions in Europe as well as domestic fees in Belgium, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Regulators' decision to curb MasterCard Inc.'s cross-border card fees was backed by an EU court last month. The court rejected MasterCard's challenge to the EU decision that it unfairly inflated the transaction fees paid by retailers for processing payments. MasterCard will appeal the case to the EU's highest court.
Retailers have long complained about the cost they are charged to accept card payments. Unlike for checks, banks charge interchange fees to process debit- and credit-card payments. Card operators set the amounts, own the payment networks and pass the money to the lenders. The retailer's bank pays the fees to the customer's card issuer.
Visa Inc., MasterCard and some of the biggest U.S. banks this month agreed to a U.S. settlement of at least $6.05 billion in a price-fixing case brought by retailers over credit-card swipe fees.