On 28 June 2023, the European Commission presented a package consisting of three proposals regarding the Euro currency. It includes a proposal for a regulation on the legal tender of Euro banknotes and coins, a proposal for a regulation on the establishment of the digital euro, accompanied by a proposal for a regulation of on the provision of digital Euro services by payment services providers incorporated in Member States whose currency is not the Euro.
While ensuring that individuals and businesses can continue to access and pay with Euro banknotes and coins across the Euro area, the package aims to set out a framework for a possible new digital form of the Euro that the European Central Bank could choose to issue in the future, as a complement to cash.
The package is not concerned, as such, with private international law. However, it appears to have some implications for private international law, which will be briefly discussed below.
Digitalisation and new technology are progressively influencing the lives of Europeans and the European economy. As the European economy becomes more digital, Europeans are increasingly using private digital payment methods to transact. Banknotes and coins, the only existing forms of central bank money with legal tender available to the general public (including individuals, governments, and corporations), cannot support the EU’s economy in the digital age.
As online transactions expand and payment habits of the general public migrate to the wide range of private digital payment methods available in the EU, their use in payments declines. The lack of a widely available and useable form of central bank money that is technologically fitted to the digital era may also erode trust in commercial bank money, and eventually in the Euro itself.
In this context, the issuing of a retail CBDC (Central Bank Digital Currency) has acquired substantial attention in recent years: a retail CBDC, like cash, would be an official form of central bank money that is directly available to the general public and has the legal tender status. And attention would like to turn into reality also in the EU.
Indeed, many central banks across the world have started looking at the possibility of introducing CBDCs. They, like the European Central Bank, have been conducting research and piloting programmes to better understand their potential advantages and drawbacks. Sweden, for instance, began a research on the viability of an e-krona within the EU. Outside of the EU, the United Kingdom has published multiple consultations and begun research towards a digital pound, akin to the European Central Bank’s technical inquiry into a digital euro. China has previously produced a digital yuan outside of Europe, which is already accessible for payment in an increasing number of places, with major banks and payment service providers facilitating the process. The United States, then, is looking at the possibility of a digital dollar but has not yet concluded if it is necessary.
However, some underlying choices need to be faced. For example, CBDC can be of two different types: (a) Account-based: before allowing a user to make a payment, an account-based approach often entails the use of a trusted third party to authenticate the identification of the account holder and the check on account balance; the accounts are then debited and credited accordingly; or (b) Token-based: a form of money issued by a central bank whereby the monetary claim on the central bank is incorporated in a digital token and the transfer of the token equals transfer of the claim, without current-account relationship between the central bank and the holder.
To conclude this overall background, it is useful to clarify that it is not a matter of crypto-assets and blockchain. Crypto assets, indeed, are purely digital assets that use public ledgers over the internet to prove ownership. They use cryptography, peer-to-peer networks and a distributed ledger technology (DLT) – such as blockchain – to create, verify and secure transactions. While the digital euro, unlike crypto-assets, would be central bank money. The European Central Bank would guarantee its safety, stability, and ability to be exchanged for Euro currency at face value. In contrast, the value of crypto-assets might vary substantially, and their conversion into Euro currency or even commercial bank money cannot be guaranteed.
Proposal on Digital Euro
The goal of the proposal on digital Euro is to keep central bank money with legal tender status available to the general public, while also providing a cutting-edge and cost-effective payment method, ensuring a high level of privacy in digital payments, maintaining financial stability, and promoting accessibility and financial inclusion.
As a result, they offer the essential legal framework to guarantee the successful use of the digital Euro as a single currency throughout the eurozone, addressing the demands of users in the digital age, and supporting competitiveness, efficiency, innovation, and resilience in the EU’s digitalizing economy. They offer the essential legal framework to guarantee the successful use of the digital Euro as a single currency throughout the eurozone, addressing the demands of users in the digital age, and supporting competitiveness, efficiency, innovation, and resilience in the EU’s digitalizing economy.
Subject Matter, Establishment and Issuance of the Digital Euro
‘Digital euro’ means the digital form of the single currency available to natural and legal persons for the purpose of retail payments. It may be issued by the European Central Bank and, if authorised by the European Central Bank, by eurozone national central banks. This means that it would be public money or central bank money. Like Euro banknotes and coins, the digital Euro will be a direct liability of the European Central Bank or of eurozone national central banks vis-à-vis digital Euro users, i.e. those making use of a digital Euro payment service in the capacity of payer, payee, or both.
Several rules are being proposed to integrate the digital Euro into the current legal framework. In particular, digital Euro payment transactions shall be subject to Payment Services Directive (PSD2, as will be replaced by proposed PSD3 and PSR), the Cross-Border Payments Regulation (as will be amended by the proposed accompanying Regulation), the Anti-Money Laundering Directive (AMLD5, as will be replaced by proposed AMLD6 and AMLR) and the Funds Transfer Regulation.
The digital Euro will have legal tender status, which means that it must be accepted at face value with the ability to satisfy a payment obligation; this is not the case for existing electronic means of payments provided by commercial banks. Surcharges will be prohibited. To guarantee the effective preservation of the digital euro’s legal tender status as a unified currency throughout the eurozone, as well as the acceptance of digital Euro payments, provisions on sanctions for infringements will be adopted and implemented in the Member States.
Payees are entitled to refuse payment in digital Euro under the circumstances indicated in Article 9.
The digital Euro will be convertible in the same way as Euro banknotes and coins, scriptural money, and electronic money are. Where both digital Euro and Euro cash acceptance is required, the payer may choose between the two.
(Private) Payment service companies would act as intermediaries for the digital euro. Banks and other payment service providers, indeed, would be in charge and in responsibility of distributing digital euros and providing payment services to natural and legal persons, primarily via offering a variety of digital Euro payment services (without the need for an extra licence). These services include first of all enabling users to access and use digital euro; persons, indeed, would be able to open a digital Euro account at any commercial bank or any other payment service provider, such as payment institutions and electronic money institutions. Then, other digital Euro payment services included cover initiating and receiving digital Euro payment transactions, managing their digital Euro payment accounts (which function similarly to digital wallets and have a unique account number), providing users with digital Euro payment instruments, and conducting funding (i.e., acquiring digital Euro in exchange for cash or other funds) / defunding operations.
There is also a list of basic digital Euro payment services that must be provided to individuals for free, such as opening and maintaining digital Euro payment accounts, funding/defunding from/into cash, initiating and receiving digital Euro payment transactions (person-to-person, person-to-government, government-to-person, or point of interaction including point-of-sale and e-commerce) via an electronic payment instrument, or providing such instruments. Users using digital euros can have one or more digital Euro payment accounts with the same or other payment services providers.
Access, Use and its Limits, Technical Features and Privacy
The proposal provides also other rules.
Chapter six, devoted to the access side, deals with the use of the digital Euro outside the Euro area, which depend on whether natural and legal persons reside or are established in a non-Euro area Member States or in a third country. It will be possible, subject to described conditions under Articles 18 to 21.
Technical features are also taken into account under chapter seven, where it is indicated that the digital Euro should be developed in a way that makes it easy to use for the general public, including financially excluded or at-risk individuals, those with impairments, functional limits, or inadequate digital skills, and the elderly. In order to achieve this aim, digital Euro users will not be needed to have a non-digital Euro payment account. And the digital Euro should be available for digital Euro payment transactions both offline and online as of the first issuance of the digital Euro and should allow for conditional payment transactions. Users may use the European Digital Identity Wallets established under the proposed Regulation on a European Digital Identity, described on this blog, to onboard and make payments. The digital Euro should enable digital users to switch their digital Euro payment accounts to another payment services provider at the request of the digital Euro user.
Finally, privacy and data protection issues are addressed.
Private International Law Implications
CBDCs are not free from private international law implications. Payment currency, indeed, is a component that private international law cannot ignore.
Basically, the problem of problems, which then concerns all the classic private international law issues, is that relating to the connecting factors to be used for this currency. Can the criteria of the locus rei sitae and lex rei sitae have any weight? And if so, where is this currency located? If not, what other criteria to use?
And, generally related to the latter, also the role of private autonomy and its possible limits is to be addressed. For instance, if the CBDC is included in a contract with cross-border elements, how do you provide for party autonomy? Should boundaries to CBDC, and the contract, be established?
In jurisdiction matter, it follows that identifying the court to deal with it is relevant, among intermediaries and account holders.
But also for the applicable law the problems are no less: opening CBDC accounts, holding, transactions, payments, settlements, and other aspect such as data flow can be dealt with.
An impact, also, in terms of recognition and enforcement, imagining having a judgement including CBDC matters to be recognized and enforced in different countries.
History tends to repeat itself: what to do then? Adapt existing rules, if they resist this tool, or devise new ones?
Surely a good starting point is to refer to the contribution in progress in this field, such as the Proposal for Exploratory Work: Private International Law Aspects of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) by the Hague Conference on Private International Law. Perhaps the HCCH is also the place to regulate these private international law issues at international level (so, with non-EU countries) on these topics?
Finally, since we are talking about dematerialized assets, can some help come from the system developed under the Convention of 5 July 2006 on the Applicable Law to Certain Rights in Respect of Securities held with an Intermediary (Securities Convention)?