* Challenge to EU ban on transaction fees dealt blow
* Adviser to top court says firm's appeal should be
* Move may bolster EU regulatory clampdown
* MasterCard says interference will push up consumer costs
By Foo Yun Chee
LUXEMBOURG, Jan 30 MasterCard's five-year
battle to keep multi-billion-euro cross-border card fees was
dealt a blow on Thursday when an adviser to Europe's top court
backed efforts to reduce such charges.
The legal opinion follows a European Commission ruling that
said MasterCard's cross-border "interchange" fees - levied on
retailers' credit and debit card transactions - broke antitrust
rules and had to be changed.
Mastercard challenged this but the court adviser's
recommendation now means it is likely to fail.
The EU antitrust regulator says such fees cost businesses
across Europe 10 billion euros ($13.64 billion) a year.
Many consumer rights campaigners argue these hidden costs,
charged when banks process payments by, for example, a German
visiting London, are passed on to the consumer.
"I propose that the court should dismiss the main appeal (by
MasterCard) and the cross-appeals," Advocate General Paolo
Mengozzi at the EU Court of Justice said in his opinion.
The court, which will issue its judgement in the coming
months, follows such advice in the majority of cases.
The opinion represents a setback to the world's
second-largest credit and debit-card company after Visa.
Mastercard says such interference would actually lead to higher
costs for consumers and encourage the black economy.
The advice may also bolster support for proposed European
Union rules to cap charges on card payments that have yet to be
approved by EU countries and the bloc's parliament.
That crackdown is part of the Commission's push to boost
e-commerce in the 28-country bloc and reduce costs for business.
Interchange fees are collected and kept by banks processing
payments using cards. While MasterCard does not benefit directly
from the charge, it fears a crackdown will discourage lenders
from issuing its cards.
MasterCard, which faces increasing competition from rival
payment schemes such as eBay's PayPal, was critical of
"Practical experience in countries such as Spain, Australia
and the United States shows that capping interchange shifts the
costs for transactions from retailers on to consumers,"
MasterCard President Javier Perez said in a statement.
"A one-size-fits all approach to interchange across Europe
will drive the cost of cards up for consumers ... and ignores
the very different market realities across European countries,"
EU retail lobby EuroCommerce, whose 1997 complaint triggered
the first regulatory investigation into MasterCard, welcomed the
"This should be another reason for the European Parliament
to go forward with regulation on interchange fees," said Ruth
Milligan of EuroCommerce.
MasterCard has said the value of cross-border card
transactions is less than 5 percent of all purchases made by
cardholders. A lower court threw out its challenge in 2012.
In the long-running dispute with the European Commission
about such charges, MasterCard has made some concessions.
It agreed to reduce its debit card charges to 0.20 percent
of a transaction and 0.30 percent for credit cards, pending this
Rival Visa Europe, Europe's largest card network and the
European licensee of Visa, has offered similar concessions.