A group of Europe's largest banks are holding secret discussions to establish a pan-European debit card scheme that would challenge those operated by MasterCard and Visa, according to banking consultancy Lafferty Group.
The banks inolved include Société Générale, Deutsche Bank, Dresdner Bank, Commerzbank, Unicredito, ABN Amro, ING and Rabobank, says Lafferty.
The group is believed to be unhappy with the possible emergence of MasterCard's Maestro as the dominant provider of debit card network services in Europe, particularly following the introduction of the single euro payments area (Sepa) in 2008.
Lafferty says both the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (ECB) are concerned that competition in the market would be undermined by the emergence of Maestro as the dominant player, particularly as Visa's rival debit system, V Pay, hasn't gained widespread support from European banks.
But the consultancy says there is contrasting information on the progress the European banks have made so far. According to one source, a working group has been established to examine the feasibility of using the Euro Alliance of Payment Schemes (EAPS) as a basis for forming the new debit card system. But another source claims that disussions have only occurred at board level within the banks and no technical issues have been discussed.
But news that some of Europe's largest banks are considering setting up their own debit system will have "profound implications for the strategy of MasterCard to establish Maestro as the default debit scheme within Europe," says Lafferty.
In May last year Belgium's bank-owned payment network, Banksys, said it was switching its domestic debit card system to MasterCard's Maestro platform in time for Sepa, but the decision was reversed by the Belgian banking federation, Febelfin, in April this year following protests from retailers concerned about interchange fees and uncertainty about legislation surrounding payments processing.
Mastercard retaliated by re-affirming its intention to introduce Maestro as a local debit scheme in Belgium at the beginning of 2008, in direct competition with Banksys' Bancontact system.
Meanwhile in December the Sparda co-operative banking group in Germany - which comprises 12 national banks and 2.65 million members - said it was ditching its domestic debit ec (electronic cash) scheme in favour of using MasterCard's Maestro for both national and international debit card payments.