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Belgian competition authority raises concern over 'neutral' cashpoints

14:12 19/05/2024

The Belgian Competition Authority has begun an investigation into the phasing out of hundreds of bank cash machines and their replacement by a new consolidated network of "neutral" Bancontact-branded ATMs.

The investigation focuses on accessibility to the ATMs, and therefore to cash, as well as on the quality of service, notably in terms of waiting time.

The new cash hubs are supposed to compensate for the vast reduction in cash dispensers in the country.

According to Belgian banking federation Febelfin, in 2023 there were only 4,055 ATMs, less than half the number available a decade ago.

In 2020, Batopin, a joint initiative of Belgium’s four biggest banks – BNP Paribas Fortis, KBC, ING and Belfius – was launched to consolidate cashpoint provision across Belgium.

The company currently operates in about 400 locations and runs approximately 1,000 ATMs. These are placed in indoor spaces, on the wall and in standalone kiosks, the latter suitable for car parks in small towns.

Batopin is aiming to instal its "Point Cash" hubs in 970 locations across Belgium, providing 2,510 machines across 503 communes by the end of 2025.

The company said that this network would enable 95% of Belgians to access a cashpoint within 5km of their home. Lease agreements have been signed for an additional 150 sites, although 420 more are still required.

Following an initial preliminary analysis of the cash centres, the Belgian Competition Authority (BCA) investigation said the project “raises concerns for consumers, despite the agreement concluded in March 2023 between the federal government and Febelfin on access to the cash machines [requiring Batopin to instal at least one ATM in every Belgian commune], which has significantly improved the situation”.

Concerns relate on the one hand to “the reduction in the number of ATMs and the additional distance to be travelled to access them, and on the other hand, to the consequences of the increased use of the ATMs in the Batopin network on the quality of service.”

The BCA said that Batopin had “already provided a series of observations in response to the preliminary analysis and is actively collaborating in the ongoing investigation,” adding that, “at this stage, the outcome and duration of this investigation remain open”.

Belgian consumer protection organisations Test-Achats and Financité are pleased that the BCA is looking into the Batopin scheme, which they have criticised since it was first set up.

They lodged an appeal with Belgium’s Council of State to demand that the government “finally provides the essential information needed to assess its practical impact on consumers”.

Test-Achats has criticised the decreased number of cash dispensers. It noted that, in the last five years, Belgium is the European country that has seen the biggest reduction and that Batopin’s consolidated matchines have only aggravated this situation.

Test-Achats spokeswoman Julie Frère said that despite the March 2023 agreement, concerns remain.

"Being able to access your own money easily and free of charge is for us a fundamental right, which must be guaranteed by the banks, who must continue to play their societal role," she said.

"We hope that the authority’s analysis will wake up our government on this essential question."

Financial research, education and action group Financité agreed. With its priorities social justice in financial matters, it says that the next government “will have to be firm and live up to the expectations of its citizens”.

The banks meanwhile argue that due to the decrease in cash transactions and withdrawals, there is no need to operate so many expensive ATMs.

Notwithstanding, as per the March 2023 agreement, the financial sector has pledged to maintain about 4,000 cash machines until 2027.

Written by Liz Newmark