SEPA: Don’t Miss the Wood for the Trees

Before my summer break this year, as with every other summer holiday in the past, I checked the internet for the adapters that I would need to take to enable me to use my iPad, mobile and computer while away. Yet again, I couldn’t find the ones I bought a few years ago and haven’t needed ever since. It’s at moments like this that I realise the benefits of standardisation. The amount of money we spend on adapters, plugs and chargers is a boost to the global economy. During my hunt around the house, my mind wandered back to some 15 years ago, when an American colleague blew up his own computer running on 110Volts and plunged 150 offices into darkness.

So much for non-standardisation.

Had I stayed this year in Continental Europe, I would not have had this challenge; thanks to standardisation of power supplies, plugs and sockets with the implementation of CEE 7 standard decades ago. Today we have little or no recollection of the painful and frustrating journey this standardisation required back then; we now take the benefits for granted…

In less than five months’ time when the single euro payments area (SEPA) finally replaces the different national payment standards, we will be witness to yet another infrastructure standardisation. Yet again, people tend to forget the decision was taken more than a decade ago and the time and effort already invested by the payment industry ahead of the 1 February 2014 launch date.

Even this late in the game, some people still challenge the need for and benefits from SEPA standardisation. They question the purpose of a harmonisation whereby a Dutch payer crediting a Dutch beneficiary uses the same payment format as a Greek payer crediting a Greek beneficiary – and admittedly, at a micro level, it does seem hard to justify. Many feel the pain of investing in a process that has not been broken. The opposition in different countries seems to grow in strength now that people and businesses realise the full scope and impact of the impending SEPA deadline.

Personally I am convinced that 10 years from now we will have a different perspective on SEPA. Today implementation issues prevent us from seeing the bigger picture. By then, harmonisation of the payment infrastructure in Europe will surely have changed our perception on cash management, bank relationships and competition. How different it will be is hard to predict. I bet by then we all will take the benefit for granted and have forgotten the cost of implementation.

Infrastructural standardisation, be it CEE7 or SEPA, is ultimately a political agenda. In the case of SEPA, the decision was taken in 2000 in Lisbon, when the Agenda for European Competitiveness was adopted. To me, challenging this decision now is pointless. At most, one could debate who should pay for the time and effort that individuals and businesses are investing in changing procedures and technology. Let’s focus on the bigger picture instead.

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