European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services
Closing remarks: Financial inclusion and education in the EU
UniCredit Group Workshop on Financial Inclusion for Migrants
Brussels, 4 March 2009
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for inviting me to speak at this event. We are living in hard times. More and more families feel the painful impact of the financial crisis and the recession. Many people are losing their jobs, some have lost their homes. Access to credit has become more difficult. In this tough situation we should remember that some social groups are particularly vulnerable. Migrants are one of them. At the Commission, we are trying to make the best use of the EU's limited powers in the social area to help disadvantaged groups. One of the relevant policies is financial inclusion. The Commission is promoting the right of access to basic financial services and the provision of financial education to all consumers in the Internal Market.
Access to basic financial services has become a necessary pre-condition for participating in economic and social life in a modern society. In particular, access to a bank account, offering a minimum of basic transactions, has become key to social integration. Salaries, benefits and utilities are more and more paid via bank accounts. Moreover, being a gateway to other financial services like savings, insurance and credit, a basic bank account can be considered as a starting point for financial inclusion.
In spite of many positive actions taken both by national authorities and financial services providers, the evidence shows that there are still considerable efforts to be made across the EU to ensure access to basic banking services for all. In most countries, a large number of people encounter difficulties accessing a basic bank account in the mainstream market. According to a study carried out by the Commission, the percentage of the "unbanked" ranges from 10 % of all adults in the pre-enlargement EU to nearly 50% in the Member States that joined after 2004. Those people are very often in a vulnerable position in society – living on low incomes, unemployed, being single parents, recipients of social assistance, pensioners or migrants - which demonstrates the link between financial and social exclusion.
Moreover, increasing numbers of consumers are likely to be affected as a result of the ongoing financial crisis. Access to basic financial services could become harder as the capacity of the industry to meet the needs of consumers will be impacted, potentially resulting in an increased number of people being excluded from mainstream financial services.
The Commission believes the situation needs to be improved and that, eventually, all Europeans should be guaranteed adequate access to basic financial services. In November 2007, the Single Market Review announced the Commission's intention to ensure that by a certain date nobody is denied access to a basic bank account. The need for action was highlighted at a conference held in May 2008 which brought together more than 400 people from the financial sector, public authorities, consumer groups and NGOs. The main conclusion of the conference was that public authorities, both at national and European levels, have the responsibility to guarantee that all Europeans can access and have adequate use of basic financial services.
As a follow-up to the conference, last month the Commission launched a public consultation to gather views and ideas on how to ensure access to a basic bank account. The consultation paper explains the current situation and presents various policy solutions to address financial exclusion. Everyone is invited to express their views on the possible roles for various stakeholders, both private and public, at national and European levels, and on the instruments to promote financial inclusion.
Another way to support migrants' social and economic integration is through financial education. Migrants tend to suffer from low levels of financial awareness. They, in general, need help to understand financial services and use them in the appropriate way. Indeed, a certain level of financial literacy is necessary for those who obtain access to financial services – even the basic ones. In this regard, the Commission complements its work on financial inclusion with some initiatives aimed at promoting financial education across the EU.
The Commission recognised the importance of consumer financial capability for the proper functioning of the Internal Market in its Communication of December 2007 on financial education. Consumers have to be empowered to take responsible decisions regarding their personal finance. Only in this way will they be able to reap benefits that come from European financial integration.
The EU's role in this regard is mainly supportive, as education is a competence of the Member States. The national level is the most appropriate for the delivery of consumer education programmes. It is also the most effective and efficient level. Member States have a key role to play, for example by adopting national financial education strategies based on public – private partnership. We believe that the Commission's role is to act as a promoter of financial education EU-wide: showing its benefits, coordinating efforts, demonstrating best practice. In this regard, the Commission has been implementing a few practical initiatives.
Last year we created an Expert Group on Financial Education – to provide a forum for exchanging best practice and producing advice to the Commission on relevant policy issues. The Expert Group includes experts with various backgrounds, representing the industry, regulators, consumers and academia in various Member States. It held its first meeting last October, devoted to national strategies for financial education. The report, with some practical recommendations for those involved in development of such strategies, is available on our website.
To support financial education at school, the Commission has been developing on-line tools for teachers as a part of its "DOLCETA" project for consumer education. The purpose is to make it easier for teachers to incorporate financial literacy topics into the existing school programmes. This Internet-based resource will be proposed by the Commission for use on a voluntary basis. The lesson plans will be fully adapted to the specific circumstances of each country. The work is in progress and this tool will be available in early 2010.
We have also published a European Database for Financial Education, an electronic library of consumer and investor education schemes run by all types of providers. The Database, which was launched in January this year, already includes over 200 entries from various Member States. It is a living database: any provider is welcome to add and manage information about its work. The European Database for Financial Education is available on the "Europa" website.
The Commission also offers its patronage to selected events giving visibility to financial education in the Member States.
We cannot let the current economic situation overshadow the importance of developing effective solutions which provide for real long-term access to basic financial services to all Europeans. We cannot abandon efforts to encourage and facilitate the development of financial education programmes in the Member States. On the contrary, the current financial turbulence has highlighted more than ever the need to manage personal finances efficiently, and the necessity of creating a greater level of awareness of the issue of financial inclusion across the EU.