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Representation of public interest in banking #0 – Introduction: A contribution to shaping a vision for the future of banking in Europe

This is the first article in a series of blogs on a new Finance Watch project on the representation of public interest in banking.

The essential nature of some of the core functions of banks combined with the enormous potential costs of banking crises on the economy and their consequences for society call for some form of representation of the public interest in banking, in the way that banks operate and in the way they are regulated and controlled.

Despite the crisis and despite the many political announcements made at the time – not least stating that a return to banking as usual was not an option – the debate over banking regulation has remained to a large extent in the hands of “experts” and is dominated by the banking lobbies themselves. A large majority of citizens and civil society organisations do not feel able, or even interested, in taking part in the debate despite its obvious public interest dimension. Many feel they are unqualified and unable to be part of the discussion, that it is something best left to experts.

Partly as a result, regulatory changes have remained complex and have failed to deliver the necessary changes, instead reinforcing the status quo. Among other things, this means banking is still dominated by too big to fail banks. Over the last 20 or so years these banks have expanded their activities beyond their basic functions (savings, credits and payments) to other activities, notably in relation to capital markets.

It also means that the many alternative banking models already in existence, the resilience of which has been proven during the crisis until today (see for example the cooperative banks in Germany), and the many others we see emerging (see citizens-driven initiatives such as Banca Popolare Etica in Spain), remain marginal in Europe. The existing system and the attached regulatory process have proved to be large obstacles to building a truly diversified banking sector.

Based on this assessment and a wish to reflect upon its mission of “making finance serve society”, Finance Watch started a research project investigating the representation of public interest in banking.

The project, which runs over two years (2015-2016) is benefiting from the financial support of the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung, and from the expertise of an Advisory Council composed of a group of eighteen established experts and academics.

The project aims at providing a framework to understand and deliver better public interest outcomes in banking via an inclusive process with civil society representatives. One of the end goals in this respect is to improve the democratic accountability of the policymaking process.

One part of the project involves seeking input from civil society, academics, campaigners and other interested parties through workshops and interviews. The workshops aim to discuss the meaning of public interest representation in banking and how to research it, and then later to discuss potential policy proposals. The workshops started in 2015 and will continue through 2016.

The research project also includes a historical and literature review, data collection and case studies, for example drawing on the Finance Watch team’s hands-on experience in specific regulatory files, with a view to understanding the forces that have pushed banking away from its public interest roles. Finally and most importantly the project aims to develop policy proposals in conjunction with civil society, academics, campaigners and others.

With a view to make the project as inclusive as possible, and to contribute as we go to the debate on public interest representation in banking, this blog series will be a combination of articles about the project from Finance Watch staff  and articles from guest bloggers that we meet along the way.

This first post is therefore an invitation to contribute: please comment, share and let us know of relevant references, contacts and links that could be useful to this debate!

We will feed the blog as regularly as possible and will share with you important contributions from researchers or organisations involved in re-thinking and changing banking in Europe.

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