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Are the EC Card’s days numbered in Germany?

Maestro-function EC cards will no longer be issued as of July 2023. That may leave many people with German cards without the option to use the ubiquitous “EC Karte” abroad. Here's what you need to know.

Are the EC Card’s days numbered in Germany?
An EC card used to pay at a German supermarket. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

In a country that often lags behind much of the rest of the world digitally, cash is still king in many places. From restaurants to bars, cafes, and some smaller shops – options to pay by card are often limited. If a place does take card, it’s often the debit EC card, rather than a credit card or plastic from abroad.

That could soon see a shakeup.

Around 100 million EC cards are currently in use in Germany – more than the number of residents. These cards use two payment services: the Maestro service, which Mastercard provides, and the Girocard service which is independent. Maestro allows the holder to pay with an EC card when abroad, whether at a beach bar in Spain or a museum in Italy.

At home in Germany, Girocard processes EC card transactions.

But the EC card’s popularity here doesn’t translate elsewhere. German cards account for about half of all worldwide Maestro transactions, with the remaining half split absolutely everywhere else in tiny amounts. As such, it’s become difficult and expensive for Mastercard to maintain the old Maestro system that so many people in Germany love to use.

As of 2023, Mastercard will no longer issue Maestro cards, although people can still use ones issued before then until they expire. Without an alternative, that would leave some German debit card holders unable to pay using their new cards abroad.

Rumour has it that a similar Visa service – Vpay – is also on the way out soon.

That could see many cardholders ditch their old EC cards for Mastercard and Visa’s debit services — but around 250,000 businesses in Germany still only take payments made through the Girocard service — which isn’t a part of Visa or Mastercard. A big reason is that retailers pay lower fees to use Girocard.

What are the alternatives to EC Cards?

Where might that leave cardholders in Germany? It might put more pressure on retailers to accept services other than Girocard, which could incur fees that retailers will simply pass on to buyers.

It might leave some people carrying multiple cards, with a debit card they would only ever be able to use at home and not abroad. Or, it might mean carrying more cash just in case people come into an establishment that only takes cash and Girocard.

Some German banks have already moved ahead to offer customers integrated cards.

DKB, an popular online bank in Germany, sees Girocard as an outdated model that can’t be developed much further—and one that’s hard to use for online shopping. Since January, it has only issued customers with a Visa Debit card, but has left them the option to also have a Girocard. This will no longer be free though, costing customers an extra €1 a month.

A customer pays with EC card in a local shop

A customer pays with EC card in a local shop. Many businesses still only take EC card or cash payment in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

READ ALSO: Why Germans are finally choosing cards over cash

Other banks, like ING, use a ‘co-badge’ system that pays for both the licenses to Girocard and either Visa or Mastercard. However, that leaves cardholders paying a higher fee.

Professor Jürgen Moormann of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that MasterCard and Visa are probably discontinuing the Maestro and Visa services for EC cards abroad to put more pressure on Girocard within Germany.

This makes it more likely that retailers will start offering more card-based payment options, such as credit and debit card, to keep things simple for customers.

“They clearly want to increase their market share in Germany,” Moormann says of Visa and Mastercard.

While it’s still too early to tell whether the EC card will be squeezed out, regular cardholders may be left carrying more than one card — or paying higher fees for integrated cards — for a while yet.

In Germany at least, the EC card will be around for some time to come — but its days may well be numbered.

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ENERGY

Will Germany set a gas price cap?

As energy costs rise further, more German politicians are coming out in favour of a cap on gas prices - and the government is reportedly looking into the matter.

Will Germany set a gas price cap?

What’s happening?

With electricity bills having doubled in some cases and German inflation seeing post-war record highs of 7-8 percent each month, the German government has been making a lot of money available to help give some relief to people struggling with their bills.

Some of this money is designed to specifically target the financial pressure brought on by the rising price of natural gas – which around half of German households use for heat. Gas also supplies around a quarter of German electricity, but has nearly quintupled in price.

The government’s relief measures include one-off payments and a cut on the VAT put on natural gas from 19 percent to 7 percent.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Everything Germany is doing to help relieve rising energy costs

But more politicians and experts are saying that’s not enough, and are calling for the federal government to pass a Gaspreisdeckel – a cap on the price of gas.

The Left Party has been advocating such a cap for months. But this week, leader of the conservative opposition Christian Social Union (CSU) Markus Söder, whose Bavarian party is sister to the Christian Democrats in the rest of the country, also called for a gas price cap.

“We are experiencing an unprecedented increase in the price of gas and it is essential to prevent normal earners from becoming low earners,” he said.

CSU Leader and Bavarian Premier Markus Söder is in favour of a gas price cap. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Nicolas Armer

He says the federal traffic light coalition should also abandon plans for its gas levy, which passes on some of the higher costs of importing gas to consumers, and to suspend the national debt brake. That would allow more government money to be spent on relief.

READ ALSO: Germany to push ahead with gas levy plans

Alexander Dobrindt, who leads the CSU in the Bundestag, says a gas price cap should cover 75 percent of consumption in private households, with the remaining 25 percent determined by market rates. Dobrindt argues that allowing the last quarter to fluctuate would incentivise people to still save energy.

Who else wants it?

Söder’s CDU colleagues in the Bundestag say they’re also in favour of a short-term cap on gas prices to get through the winter.

Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey also called for a cap this week.

She says she’s in favour of a Energiepreisdeckel – or a cap on electricity prices that goes beyond simply gas prices, and intends to take the matter to a meeting the 16 federal state bosses will have with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his federal government on September 28th.

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Deckel

“The government needs to put an energy price cap in and give people the security they need to sleep peacefully again,” said Giffey, who unlike opposition politicians like Söder, comes from the same Social Democratic Party as Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey, from Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, wants an electricity price cap for both households and businesses. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

She says that businesses threatened by rising costs should also benefit from a cap, alongside private households. She says the national debt brake should be suspended to pay for this.

In an interview with public broadcaster ZDF, economics professor and member of the federal government’s economic experts committee Veronika Grimm also called for a gas price cap, provided it still be set up to give people an incentive to save energy.

The Federal Association of German Housing and Real Estate Companies (GdW) is also calling for a federal gas price cap, warning that many tenants may not be able to pay their utility costs.

READ ALSO: Tenants in Germany need eviction protections during energy crisis, says housing boss

What is the government doing about it?

Energy and Economics Minister Robert Habeck of the Greens ruled out a cap on gas prices earlier this week, but Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the liberal Free Democrats has set up a working group that will look at capping gas prices.

The expert group will examine whether a gas price cap is possible, how it might be put into place, and how such a cap would be paid for, ahead of consultations with the federal state heads next week.

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