The Belgian banking community has
reversed a decision to switch its domestic debit card scheme,
Bancontact/Mister Cash, to the MasterCard Maestro payments platform
at the end of 2007. The switch was originally announced by Belgian
payment body Banksys in May 2006 and was scheduled for January
2008, in order to coincide with the introduction of the Single Euro
Payments Area (SEPA).

An exact timetable for the revised switch was not given,
although MasterCard said it intends to introduce Maestro as a local
scheme in Belgium next year.

When originally selecting MasterCard’s debit scheme, Banksys
said it had taken the decision to switch to Maestro for technical
and organisational reasons, “to benefit all Belgian citizens,
consumers and merchants, and to strengthen its position as an
international provider of payment services”.

No special effort needed

Maestro was chosen to replace Bancontact/Mister Cash as
migration would not require a special effort from Belgian
consumers, given that the Maestro function is incorporated into the
vast majority of payment cards.

Over 95 percent of Belgian debit cards already have Maestro
operability for international transactions and the
Bancontact/Mister Cash cards already carry the Maestro logo.
Banksys said that turning the Bancontact/Mister Cash scheme into a
SEPA-compliant scheme was economically unfeasible. The decision to
delay the switch to Maestro was made by Febelfin, the Belgian
banking federation, which said that it was waiting for a “clearer
framework of reference”.

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In a statement, Febelfin said: “The reason is a lack of
sufficient support from the European authorities on the business
model which had been established within this framework…
nevertheless, the Belgian financial sector maintains its engagement
towards SEPA.”

The federation also said that the European Commission had laid
down objectives and rules that were poorly defined.

Belgian newspapers speculated that the delay of the switch
followed protests from retailers concerned about interchange fee
levels. In December 2006, MasterCard announced its SEPA fall-back
interchange rates for Maestro POS transactions intended to be
effective from 1 January 2008. Master-Card said that with the new
rates and increased competition resulting from the introduction of
a Maestro four-party model, it anticipated that total costs to
merchants for SEPA transactions would come down, on average, across
the SEPA region over time.

Increased competition

In response to the Maestro switch delay, MasterCard reaffirmed
its intention to introduce Maestro as a local debit scheme from
2008, in competition with the Bancontact system. MasterCard said
that the introduction of Maestro at the national level would open
the market to new acquirers and would lead to more competition
relating to merchant service charges, terminals and

MasterCard added that it would continue to work closely with the
Belgian banks over their migration plans, and that the new
timetable would give it the opportunity to demonstrate the benefits
of Maestro compared to the existing national scheme and competitor

Across Europe, 287 million cardholders already hold SEPA-ready
Maestro cards. At its recent debit conference in Greece, MasterCard
outlined the steps it had taken to ensure that Maestro was
compliant with all aspects of the SEPA Cards Framework.

Many banks issue Maestro as their sole debit card brand and
therefore can be SEPA-compliant from 1 January 2008. MasterCard has
also enabled its brands and products to co-reside in a SEPA
environment with other schemes, such as electronic cash in Germany
and Cartes Bancaires in France.

Choice of schemes

Javier Perez, president of MasterCard Europe, said: “This means
that the hundreds of millions of European cards that leverage our
debit card brand can be SEPA-ready from 1 January 2008. Banks will
continue to be able to choose from multiple SEPA schemes whilst
merchants across the eurozone can choose which SEPA schemes to
accept, thereby ensuring vibrant competition both at a scheme and
service provider level.

“One in every two European debit card-holders is already holding
the key to the future of SEPA through their Maestro card and,
together with the banks, we’re looking forward to realising the
full potential of Europe’s new payments landscape.”