MasterCard Inc. (MA:US) is asking the European Union’s highest court to overturn an EU decision that the company’s cross-border card fees breach antitrust rules.
MasterCard filed its appeal at the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg in a case that may affect the future of card payment systems in Europe. MasterCard told a lower EU court in a hearing last year that it can’t operate without the fees it charges on credit-card payments. The company lost its first appeal and has now taken its fight to the top EU court.
“The legal issues arising from this case are important for the future development of card payment schemes and for the continued delivery of the most advanced electronic payment solutions in Europe,” MasterCard Europe said in an e-mailed statement today. “It is important, and in the best interests of our customers, consumers and merchants” that the EU court “is given the opportunity to clarify these legal uncertainties.”
The EU General Court, the bloc’s second-highest, in May backed the European Commission’s 2007 decision that MasterCard’s levies unfairly inflated the transaction fees paid by retailers for processing payments. The second-biggest card network, supported by banks including HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA) and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, previously argued the so- called multilateral interchange fees are crucial for sharing the costs of debit and credit card payments.
The case tests whether such levies are unfair to retailers and customers and could be a road-map for national regulators to pursue their own complaints. Visa Europe Ltd., operator of the EU’s largest payment-card network, was sent an antitrust complaint over its cross-border credit-card payment fees, EU regulators said July 31.
Visa Europe has reduced similar fees for debit cards to settle a 2009 EU complaint. The company split from Visa Inc. (V:US) before the U.S. card company’s initial public offering in early 2008.
While MasterCard agreed to fee changes in 2009 in a settlement with the Brussels-based EU regulator to avoid a daily penalty of as much as 3.5 percent of sales, it asked the court to quash the EU antitrust agency’s findings. The fee cuts will save consumers 200 million euros ($247 million) a year, the commission said at the time.
An unsuccessful appeal at the EU’s top court could force MasterCard to pay “substantial damages” in private actions against the company that could be triggered by the decision, the company said in a U.S. filing earlier this month.
In the U.K., such claims have already been filed, MasterCard said in the filing.
Retailers have long complained about the costs. Unlike with checks, banks charge them fees, known as interchange, to process debit- and credit-card payments. The amounts are set by the card operators, which own the payment networks and pass the money to the banks.
Five U.K. retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Asda, have filed separate lawsuits in London against MasterCard, according to court documents dated May 23.
The commission declined to comment on the appeal.
Rulings by the EU Court of Justice are binding and cannot be appealed.
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