The EU has said no one should be refused a basic bank account and have told the member states to ensure that everyone, irrespective of their financial position, can open an account into which they can put money and withdraw it.
However, the move has been criticised by the umbrella consumers group BEUC which says that banks should be legally forced to provide the service rather than the EU’s non-binding recommendation.
“People are deprived of leading a normal life in our societies when they are refused access to basic banking services. Renting accommodation or getting a job is often an insurmountable challenge for someone without a bank account. Receiving social benefits is more difficult and making bill payments without an account is usually more time-consuming and costly,” said Monique Goyens, head of BEUC.
But Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier said that he would make it compulsory next year, if the banks do not respond positively in the meantime. “We will carry out a survey and, if it has not improved sufficiently, we will legislate.”
He also wants the accounts to be free or have reasonable charges that are easy for the consumer to understand. Mr Barnier says fees for the same transactions should be similar across the EU.
An estimated 30 million people over 25 years of age across the EU don’t have bank accounts. The figure varies greatly depending on the member state from 10,000 in Luxembourg to 50% in Romania and Bulgaria.
A study conducted in Ireland showed people were refused accounts by banks because they had very low incomes, but officially were told it was because they had no identity document such as a passport, driving licence or utility bill.
The European Commission said it had received complaints of people being refused an account on the basis of their nationality or place of residence.
It also reported on the case of an Irish student in Britain who was refused an account on the basis that he needed to be living there for three years.
Mr Barnier said national government must ensure that one or several institutions offer basic bank accounts to anybody who needs them. They must be able to lodge and withdraw money across the counter and using an ATM. They must be able to have direct debits but not overdrafts.
Governments must also provide a way for people who have problems to have their complaint dealt with out of court and a system of redress.