Thursday, 5 March 2015

The financial services industry and the European Central Bank: the UK has won a battle, but can it win the war?


Steve Peers

Until yesterday, two trends seemed consistent in the jurisprudence of the EU courts. First of all, the UK kept losing cases relating to the interests of its financial services industry: on short-selling (discussed here), the financial transactions tax (discussed here) and bankers’ bonuses (discussed here). Secondly, the UK kept losing cases concerning its opt-outs from EU law (for instance, on social security and the immigration opt out, see here).

However, yesterday’s judgment of the EU’s General Court on the UK’s challenge to the European Central Bank (ECB) policy on securities clearing systems bucks both trends. What are its implications for the UK's financial services industry, and for the UK's relationship with the EU?

The judgment

The UK challenged a ‘Policy Framework’ published by the ECB, which set out the role of the ‘Eurosystem’ (the ECB and the national central banks of Eurozone states) as regards payment, clearing and settlement systems. Sweden supported the UK, while Spain and France supported the ECB; the Commission stayed neutral. The UK objected to the Policy Framework provisions which stated that any central counterparties (CCPs) that held more than 5% of the credit exposure for one of the main euro-denominated product categories had to be legally incorporated and fully controlled from within the euro area. This would inevitably mean that a portion of the financial services industry which was traditionally located in the City of London would have to move to one or more Eurozone financial markets instead.

First of all, the judgment examined the admissibility of the action. The General Court rejected the ECB’s argument that its Policy Framework was not a reviewable act, ruling that despite its apparent soft law form it would perceived as a de facto binding policy and would be applied by Eurozone regulatory authorities in practice. Also, the Court ruled that the UK had standing to bring a legal action against acts of the ECB, despite its opt-out from the single currency.

Secondly, the Court ruled on the substance of the case. It was only necessary to rule on one of the UK’s five arguments against the validity of the Policy Framework: that the ECB lacked competence to adopt a measure on the location of CCPs. (The other arguments concerned Treaty free movement rules, competition law, non-discrimination on grounds of nationality and proportionality).

The ECB had claimed a power to regulate on the basis of Article 22 of its Statute, which takes the form of a Protocol attached to the Treaties, and states that the Bank ‘may make regulations, to ensure efficient and sound clearing and payment systems within the Union and with other countries’. Also, the Bank referred to Article 127(2) TFEU, which gave it the task ‘to promote the smooth operation of payment systems’, and the ECB’s general objective of maintaining price stability and supporting general economic policies, as set out in Article 127(1) TFEU.    

In the Court’s view, however, these powers only extended to the ability to regulate ‘payments’ in the narrow sense, ie the ‘cash leg’ of clearing operations, not the ‘securities leg’, since securities do not in themselves constitute payments. Article 22 of the ECB Statute could only apply to payment systems with a clearing stage, rather than all clearing systems, in the absence of any explicit reference to the clearing of securities. The Court also rejected the ECB’s argument that it had an implied power to regulate such issues, since such implied powers only existed ‘exceptionally’.

Finally, the Court concluded by sketching out (in effect) a ‘roadmap’ to change the current situation. Acknowledging that there are ‘very close links’ between payment systems and securities clearance systems, and that disturbances affecting securities clearance can affect payment systems, it stated that Article 129 TFEU could be used to amend the relevant provisions of the ECB Statute to extend the Bank’s powers in this field. So it suggested that the ECB could trigger that amendment process by requesting the EU legislature to amend the Statute.


The essential elements of the Court’s judgment (which could still be appealed to the Court of Justice) are convincing. From the perspective of accountability, the ECB should not be able to adopt ‘policy frameworks’ with quasi-mandatory language that will likely be applied in practice, as a means of evading the judicial review that would certainly apply if it adopted those rules (as its Statute specifies) in the form of regulations. Nor is it acceptable that the ECB could adopt measures with an impact on non-eurozone Member States and deny those countries standing to sue it, especially when the Treaties (as the Court pointed out) contain no limits on such standing.

As for the substance of the case, the Court is surely right, in the interests of accountability, to say that EU institutions’ implied powers have to be interpreted narrowly. There have been five major Treaty amendments in thirty years, and so there have been plenty of opportunities for Member States to decide what powers ought to be conferred upon EU institutions, and what powers should not. In the absence of an express conferral of power, the cases where the institutions have implied powers should be very exceptional indeed.

However, the Court takes an unusually narrow approach to the interpretation of an express power, namely the possibility for the ECB to regulate ‘clearing and payment systems’ as set out in its Statute. It is not self-evident that this provision can only apply to the ‘cash leg’ of clearing systems, especially in light of the links between payment and securities systems, and the impact of disturbances affecting securities clearance, which the Court expressly acknowledges.

This key aspect of the ruling can only be understood in light of the broader political context of this case. If the ECB had won, that result would have been widely regarded in the UK as a carte blanche for the ECB to split up the single market in financial services, as part of a broader ‘ganging up’ of Eurozone Member States against non-Eurozone Member States, in particular the UK. This would have been a rather hyperbolic reaction, since an ECB victory would not necessarily have had an impact beyond the specific issue of securities clearance, and the Eurozone Member States do not gang up as easily as is sometimes imagined: witness the current relationship between Greece and Germany, for starters. Nevertheless, it’s no wonder that the judges believed it would be wiser to hand this hot potato back to the politicians.

It’s striking, though, that the judges’ roadmap to give the ECB more powers is particularly easy to follow. The use of Article 129 TFEU to amend the ECB Statute only requires a proposal from the Commission or a recommendation of the ECB, followed by the ordinary legislative procedure, entailing joint power for the European Parliament and a qualified majority vote in Council. Although all Member States would have a vote, Eurozone States (if they do gang up together on this point) can now outvote non-Eurozone States.  The UK would have to seek alliances, rather than threaten vetoes, to block such a move. The referendum requirement in the UK’s European Union Act 2011 wouldn’t apply (see s. 10(1)(b) of the Act; the requirement for parliamentary approval there is meaningless, since the UK could be outvoted). Indeed, the UK would need the backing of some Eurozone States, as well as all non-Eurozone States, to block such a Treaty amendment. This would entail, for instance, securing the support of countries like Poland, at the same time as the UK (whichever of the two largest parties forms the biggest part of government after the next election) seeks to cut back the rights of Polish workers.

Failing that, the UK could bring a legal challenge to the Treaty amendment, or the ECB measure implementing it, invoking again its arguments concerning the internal market, competition law, discrimination and proportionality, which were not addressed in the General Court’s judgment. There’s a strong case to be made that the valid objective of regulating securities clearance effectively could be ensured by collaboration between the ECB and the Bank of England, rather than forcing some part of the financial services industry to move from the UK to the Eurozone, but the UK could not count on the EU courts accepting it.  

What are the broader implications of this judgment for the UK’s role in the EU? First of all, it weakens the pro-Brexit argument that ‘we should leave the EU because the Eurozone Member States are ganging up on us’. For now, the UK has won this battle, and it’s only a hypothetical possibility that it will lose the war later on. Secondly, it weakens the argument that ‘the City of London would be perfectly fine after Brexit’. If that were true, then why were Eurosceptics poised to make an unholy fuss if the UK had lost this case? Indeed, if the UK were not in the EU, it would not have had the privileged standing to sue the ECB, and the government (or British securities firms) would have had to go through national courts in the Eurozone to challenge this policy instead. Moreover, it might be harder to invoke the other arguments which the UK made in this case (and would have to make in future), depending on what legal arrangements governed the EU/UK relationship after Brexit.


Barnard & Peers: chapter 19


  1. Really good post. I'm not sure I think that the accountability and legal arguments are consistent with economic arguments - but that is not the issue you are explaining. Thanks.

  2. Great post because it will help us a lot in the future in our financial services, thanks for sharing