Bartlomiej Kulpa, LLM (Twitter: @KulpaBart)
Since Boris Johnson took the helm as British Prime Minister, a no-deal Brexit has become the most likely scenario. The UK-based financial services firms are waiting to hear if they will be able to serve clients in the EU 27, and if so, on what basis. Currently, the UK-based financial services firms rely on the so-called passporting rights. According to The Economist, 5,476 financial services firms based in Britain used 336,421 European passports to sell their products in the EU in 2016. By comparison, approximately 8,000 financial services firms based in the EEA used 23,535 European passports to sell their products in the UK. This proves that the removal of passporting rights as well as uncertainty over what will replace them amount to an existential threat.
The Concept of a European Passport
A European passport is a right granted under the Single Financial Market Directives, such as MiFID II (The Markets in Financial Instruments Directive 2014/65/EU), to an EEA institution licenced in an EEA Member State. The European passport enables financial services firms to act on a cross-border basis within the EEA. If Britain leaves the EU without a Brexit deal, the UK-based financial services firms will lose the passporting rights and consequently full access to the single market. In other words, they will be treated as third country financial services firms.
Articles 34 and 35 of MiFID II form the legal basis for the passporting rights. Article 34 provides for freedom to provide investment services and activities in another Member State if such investment services and activities are authorised by the competent authorities of a home Member State. As regards Article 35, that allows financial services firms to provide services in another Member State through the right of establishment of a branch provided that such services are authorised by the competent authorities of the home Member State. Pursuant to Articles 34 and 35, a financial services firm must notify the competent authorities of the home Member State of its intention to provide services in another Member State. In other words, the financial services firm must apply for a licence. Subsequently, the competent authorities of the home Member State inform the competent authorities of a host Member State of the financial services firm’s intention to serve clients in the latter.
There is no doubt that the advantages of the concept of a European passport easily outweigh the disadvantages. Firstly, one licence enables financial services firms to obtain access to 31 countries which have a population of over 500 million consumers (this will be reduced after a Brexit). From a legal point of view, this means that a financial services firm that has been granted a European passport is not required to obtain a domestic licence in every Member State. Secondly, the concept of a European passport helps to keep business costs down. Thirdly, the concept of a European passport is free from political influence. Fourthly, the range of clients and investors is not limited in scope. In other words, the concept of a European passport does not only apply to professional investors but also to retail investors. Lastly, a home Member State regulator cannot revoke the European passport and the European passport is granted for a period of time with no fixed limit.
Further, it should be noted that the concept of a European passport does not have the qualities to be described as a single European passport. If it qualified as the single European passport, then financial services firms would be allowed to undertake cross-border activities throughout the EEA without taking any further actions. A good example of a single administrative act with EEA-wide effect is a European trademark granted by the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).
The Equivalence Regimes
The EU has operated the equivalence regimes (also known as the third country regime or TCR) in relation to financial services firms based outside of the single market under the relevant Single Financial Market Directives and Regulations, the USA being the prime example, for some years. In accordance with Articles 46-49 of MiFIR (The Markets in Financial Instruments Regulation (EU) No 600/2014), the equivalence regime is based on an equivalence decision made by the European Commission (EC) and the register of third country financial services firms kept by the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA). As regards the former, the EC’s equivalence decision states whether, firstly, the prudential and business conduct requirements that are legally binding in a third country have equivalent effect under EU law and whether, secondly, the legal and supervisory arrangements of the third country ensure that financial services firms authorised by the competent authorities of that third country comply with the legally binding prudential and business conduct requirements. Once the EC has made the equivalence decision in favour of a particular third country, financial services firms based in that third country need to register, within a transitional period of three years under Article 54 of MiFIR, with the ESMA. As a result, third country financial services firms are able to operate as a European hub. It should be noted that Member States shall not impose any additional requirements on such firms and shall not treat them more favourably than firms based in the EU.
Moreover, it should be emphasised that the equivalence regime enables third country financial services firms to provide investment services and activities only to eligible counterparties and professional clients. This means that, unlike the concept of a European passport, the equivalence regime does not apply to retail clients. What is more, the EC can revoke an equivalence decision at any time if divergences between a regulatory framework of a third country and the regulatory framework of the EU appear.
One could argue that in the event of a no-deal Brexit the equivalence regime would be more attractive for smaller financial services firms. As practice proves, multinational financial services behemoths, which have used Britain as the gateway to the single market, have already relocated to the EU 27 or are in the process of setting up offices there as part of their Brexit strategy.
As far as the resolution of disputes is concerned, third country financial services firms shall, before providing any services or activities to the EU-based clients, offer to submit any disputes relating to the aforementioned services or activities to the jurisdiction of a court or arbitral tribunal in one of the Member States (Article 46(6) of MiFIR). In other words, such firms shall offer a forum in the EU where their right to conduct litigation could be exercised. If Britain were to access the single market via the equivalence regime in the event of a no-deal Brexit, then the English courts would not have any jurisdiction over disputes relating to such services or activities. In practice, this would result in London facing a struggle to retain its position as a global centre for securities litigation.
Although the equivalence regime would allow the UK-based financial services firms to access, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the single market, the equivalence regime suffers from a few drawbacks. Firstly, the equivalence regime is a unilateral mechanism. To put it simply, it only depends on the EU whether it recognises as equivalent the regulatory standards of a third country. Secondly, since an equivalence decision is made by a political body, namely the EC, various political factors can impact the equivalence assessment. Thirdly, the EC’s equivalence decision cannot be reviewed by a court.
The European Passport Light
The next issue that merits attention is the so-called ‘European passport light’ as set out in Article 47(3) of MiFIR. A third country financial services firm can rely on the European passport light if the following conditions have been met: (i) the EC has made an equivalence decision in favour of a particular third country; and (ii) the third country financial services firm has been granted the authorisation to establish a branch in one of the Member States pursuant to Article 39 of MiFID II. As a result, the third country financial services firm will be able to provide services and activities to eligible counterparties and professional clients in other Member States without the requirement to establish a new branch for each additional Member State. In the same way as the equivalence regime, the European passport light does not apply to retail clients. However, unlike the equivalence regime, the European passport light is not based on the requirement to register with the ESMA.
The MiFID II Own Initiative Principle
Article 42 of MiFID II creates an exception to a Member State’s imposition of an authorisation requirement, which is enshrined in Article 39 of MiFID II, for a third country financial services firm where that firm provides investment services or activities at the exclusive initiative of a retail or professional client. The MiFID II Own Initiative Principle is coterminous with the reverse solicitation test. Compared to the equivalence regime, the MiFID II Own Initiative Principle applies to retail as well as professional clients. However, from a practical point of view, the MiFID II Own Initiative Principle does not seem to be useful for big financial services firms that intend to actively gain a market share. Furthermore, any marketing to EU-based clients triggers the EU rules for providing financial services and consequently the need for obtaining an EU licence.
It seems that the equivalence regime is the only workable arrangement that could replace the concept of a European passport in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Unless the UK government creates ‘Singapore upon Thames’, the process of making a decision whether post-Brexit Britain’s regulatory regime is deemed to be equivalent should be relatively straightforward. However, one should remember that the equivalence regime does not apply to retail clients and the EC can revoke an equivalence decision at any time. Therefore, the equivalence regime would not fill the gaps created after the cessation of the application of a European passport to the UK-based financial services firms.
M Lehmann and D A Zetzsche, Brexit and the Consequences for Commercial and Financial Relations between the EU and the UK, 20 September 2016. Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2841333;
H Nemeczek and S Pitz, The Impact of Brexit on Cross-Border Business of UK Credit Institutions and Investment Firms with German Clients, 1 February 2017. Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2948944;
The Economist, London’s reign as the world’s capital of capital is at risk, 29 June 2019. Available at: https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2019/06/29/londons-reign-as-the-worlds-capital-of-capital-is-at-risk.
Barnard & Peers: chapter 14, chapter 27
Photo credit: via Wikicommons, photo taken by Andy F