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BRUSSELS, Belgium – An important credit union meeting took place in Brussels earlier this year, even though Belgium has no credit unions. Seventeen European credit union representatives met to discuss proposed European Union (EU) banking directives that if passed, would impact CUs negatively. Arthur Arnold, CEO of the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) told Credit Union Times what the future strategy derived from the meeting would be. “Credit unions have clearly chosen not to fall under the banking directive and prefer to be considered and positioned as consumer friendly institutions with a social mission, reaching out to the lowest segment of the market by providing access to affordable financial services.” If Arnold has his way European credit unions “should be protected by enabling legislation and regulation, securing their uniqueness as member owned, not for profit institutions, with only one focus: serving their members.” WOCCU was the driving force behind the meeting of leaders from the British, Irish, Lithuanian and Polish credit union movements Credit unions are an alien concept in 13 of the 15 EU countries. However these countries do have co-operative banks, which share many of the same goals and philosophies as CUs. Ireland’s credit union movement goes back to the 1960s. The UK’s credit union movement, which until now has been made up of small volunteer groups, recently underwent major changes in regulations last July. Poland’s credit union movement has achieved record growth in its 10 years of existence. Lithuania’s is still under development. The latter two countries are slated to join the EU in 2004. The four countries have six million credit union members and over US$9 billion in savings. The representatives were briefed on how the EU works by Pete Skinner, an English Labour Party Member of Parliament (MEP) and Robert Evans, also an English Labour MEP who links the English government to the EU Treasury. A third speaker was John Hume, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the founders of the Irish Credit Union movement. According to attendee Shaun Spiers, CEO of the Association of British Credit Unions, Ltd. (ABCUL) and former MEP, British and Irish credit unions will be encouraged to lobby their MEPs with a letter-writing campaign. However, he cautioned, it is important not to be too Anglo-centric in convincing non-Anglo countries to recognize credit union concerns. Spiers planned on attending a meeting in late April in Brussels with the EU’s Legal Affairs Committee. He was optimistic that credit unions can get recognition. He said that one of the key players is Joachim Wuermerling, a German Christian Socialist who has expressed great concern about community services issues like the ones credit unions provide. The new legislation that prompted this meeting was primarily designed to eliminate predatory lending. Spiers pointed out that in both Ireland and the UK, credit unions are limited to 12.68% APR, making predatory lending impossible. He expressed concerned that many smaller British credit unions would not survive the additional paper work that the new directives would require. The credit unions are not negative to all the directives. Different financial concerns would be supported by the credit union movement, and in some cases WOCCU would work with the co-operative banks. Arnold said they would not hesitate to ask the help of others. “On other EU directives, like money laundering, payment systems, capital requirements and others, cooperative banks and CUs may have a common interest and will then not hesitate to cooperate and join forces.” Arnold said,” WOCCU will learn from the European Association of Cooperative Banks’ experience, as they have been present in Brussels for a much longer time than CUs have.” Arnold was also quick to stress the differences between credit unions and cooperative banks. “It is clear that credit unions are not cooperative banks as cooperative banks in the EU member states fall under the EU’s “Banking” directive.” A follow up meeting has been slated for October 2003 and will be hosted by the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU). -

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