Two million Belgians without access to banking services

Two million Belgians without access to banking services
Credit: Belga

While the number of bank branches and cash dispensers decreases further, there are still two million Belgians without access to banking services, according to the annual report of Financité, a non-profit organisation working for more financial inclusion.

These branches closing or only being accessible by appointment and ATMs disappearing from the streets of Belgium have greatly reduced accessibility of banking services, especially for those who – by choice or lack of means – do not bank digitally. Financité stressed that the problem is not limited to the elderly but is also correlated with income levels and education.

Anne Fily, a researcher specialising in financial inclusion and author of the report spoke to Le Soir on Monday: "The banks have a monopoly on collecting our deposits, but they are assuming less and less of their societal role."

Far fewer ATMs

According to the figures from the report, at the end of 2000 Belgium had 12,751 bank contact points. That number significantly dropped by the end of 2021, when 3,809 contact points were available in Belgium. Belgium now has 489 ATMs per million inhabitants, far below the European average of 807 ATMs per million inhabitants.

The non-profit pointed out that the Batopin initiative will further aggravate the situation in Belgium in the coming months.

Batopin will see Belgium’s four largest banks (BNP Paribas Fortis, KBC, Belfius and ING) brought together. Their machines will be replaced with new Bankcontact machines and the number of "cash points" managed by the "big four" will be largely reduced. The National Bank of Belgium estimated that the impact of Batopin will see a further 40% decrease in ATMs by the end of 2024.

Fily gave the example of the city centre of Rixensart, in Walloon Brabant, which had 7 ATMs before Batopin. Today, residents of the centre have to travel 2.3 kilometres to withdraw money, which is not always possible.

Universal banking service needed

Le Soir reported that an investigation by the Belgian Competition Authority is underway to determine whether the agreement between the four institutions is problematic or not. However, target figures have not yet been communicated by the authorities. "This case has been stalled for two years. In the meantime, the Batopin project is progressing rapidly," Financité added.

There has also been a general discouragement from banks for customers to carry out manual banking operations by increasing charging fees or removing such services from offer. These manual operations include paper transfers or sending account statements by post.

The Federal Government reacted to the forced digitalisation in July 2021, when it negotiated a charter with the financial sector to guarantee access to a universal banking service. The service should include an account and classic savings account with some banking operations, such as cash withdrawals, at a capped price of €60.

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However, Fily called it a failure for the moment, particularly because "the promotion of this service by banks and public authorities is non-existent."

According to Financité, only a few hundred of these so-called universal accounts were opened since the charter was introduced (500 at BNP Paribas Fortis, 144 at Belfius). Other banks refused to provide information on the subject. Anne Fily concluded that "a law would oblige the monitoring of the initiative and would put in place sanctions in case of non-compliance.”

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