MasterCard wins court fight with EU over card-fee research

MasterCard Inc. won a court clash with European Union antitrust regulators who refused to hand over a study comparing the costs of bank cards with cash.

The EU's General Court ruled today that the European Commission was wrong to deny MasterCard access to the study in 2011, saying regulators couldn't claim the findings were part of an antitrust investigation, and that they weren't final or could be misused to influence its decisions.

MasterCard's victory is a prelude to a bigger ruling later this week on the card operator's fight against an EU cap on cross-border card fees. The coming decision from the European Court of Justice may spur a stalled U.K. antitrust probe. EU lawmakers and governments are also discussing setting legal limit on card fees.

"As the European Commission claimed to base its legislative proposals to regulate interchange fees on the methodology used in this study, it was crucial that its findings be made public," Javier Perez, president of MasterCard Europe, said in an e-mailed statement.

EU regulators have targeted credit- and debit-card fees for more than a decade, saying fees paid by retailers are inflated and hit consumer prices.

The commission now has to adopt a decision, in line with today's judgment, either granting access or giving valid reasons for refusing access to documents,'' said Vincent Brophy, who represented MasterCard in the case.

'Possible Consequences'

"The commission will analyze this judgment carefully and reflect on possible consequences for its policy with respect to access to documents," said Antoine Colombani, a spokesman for Joaquin Almunia, the EU's antitrust chief.

"The commission has continued its work on the study of the cost for merchants of accepting payment in cash or by card. The commission published the initial results in February 2014 and expects to publish the final report in the coming weeks."

Today's ruling, which can be appealed to the EU's Court of Justice. The top court will deliver a Sept. 11 ruling on MasterCard's challenge to a 2007 EU decision forcing it to maintain reduced rates for the transaction fees that are paid by retailers.

The EU last year started a probe into Purchase, New York- based MasterCard's charges on foreign card payments such as when tourists go shopping in the 28-nation bloc.

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