UPDATE 2-EU Commission says Visa Europe offers to cap fees
(Adds reaction from Visa Europe, EuroCommerce, BEUC)
By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS May 14 (Reuters) - Visa Europe, the European licensee of Visa Inc., has offered to cap its inter-bank credit card fees at the same level as rival MasterCard to end a European Union antitrust investigation and stave off a possible fine.
Visa Europe, owned and operated by more than 3,700 European member banks, came under fire last year when the European Commission said its fees harmed competition between banks and led to higher consumer prices.
Its credit and debit cards account for about 41 percent of all payment cards issued in Europe, making it the largest card network in the European Union.
The Commission said in a statement on Tuesday that the proposed cut meant Visa Europe would charge 0.3 percent of the value of each transaction - about 40-60 percent lower than at present.
The offer, which would be valid for four years, is for cross-border and domestic fees.
But retail lobby EuroCommerce called for the Commission as the EU's competition regulator across the 27-nation bloc, to take bolder action on card charges, especially in local markets.
In addition to cutting its fees, Visa Europe also offered to reform its rules to make it easier for businesses to seek better cross-border deals from competing banks.
Visa Europe's chief executive, Peter Ayliffe, called for a level playing field for old and new competitors.
EuroCommerce, whose 1997 complaint triggered an antitrust investigation into MasterCard which subsequently capped its fees in 2009, said more should be done, especially in local markets where it said fees remain disproportionately high in several countries.
"What we really need now is to see a regulation from the Commission which goes further and which tackles interchange fees at national level. Only then will merchants and consumers see the benefits of lower costs," EuroCommerce adviser Ruth Milligan said.
EuroCommerce members include French supermarkets chain Carrefour, Swedish furniture group IKEA, British supermarkets group Tesco and Spanish clothing retailer Inditex.
Consumer group BEUC called on EU regulators not to be distracted by Visa Europe's offer but to continue efforts to regulate inter-bank card fees.
"Any reduction of MIFs (multilateral interchange fees) is a welcome step but it should not be used as a smokescreen to avoid legislative action by the European Commission to finally regulate these fees," said BEUC Director General Monique Goyens.
Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier is due to present legislation regulating card fees in the second quarter of the year.
The EU antitrust authority said those interested in the matter will be able to comment soon on Visa Europe's proposal before it decides whether to accept the offer. (Editing by Greg Mahlich)
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