Cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase has chosen Ireland as its main operational and regulatory hub in the European Union, the company told CNBC in an exclusive interview.
Coinbase submitted its application for a license under the EU’s new Markets in Crypto-Assets (MiCA) regulation, which is set to come into force by December 2024, with the Central Bank of Ireland.
Coinbase has had an office in Dublin since 2018. The company employs about 100 people in Ireland.
If and when it is approved, Coinbase will have a universal “MiCA license” in Ireland, which it can then use to “passport” its services into Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and other EU countries.
That makes it easier for Coinbase to launch new products in those markets without having to apply for individual licenses in each country. Coinbase says it’s confident it will be able to win this license.
The company is planning to be operational with its MiCA license from “day one,” Nana Murugesan, Coinbase’s vice president of international, told CNBC in an interview earlier this week.
What is MiCA?
MiCA is the EU’s attempt at introducing a pan-European regulatory framework for crypto companies. It seeks to introduce protections for investors buying and selling crypto assets, like bitcoin and ethereum.
The rules will allow crypto companies to use one license in one country to operate across all 27 EU member states.
The regulation imposes a number of requirements on crypto firms, particularly exchanges, including the requirement that they don’t commingle client funds with their own assets.
“As soon as MiCA was passed into law, and even before that, we’ve been considering a number of member states,” Murugesan said. “It was a long decision making process and we’ve been very impressed with the engagement from Ireland throughout.”
“It was really important for us to choose a member state that is not only a sophisticated regulator with significant experience in regulating financial services, but also recognises the importance of a globally integrated business model, the way we are structured as a company, and also the potential of this innovative new technology.”
Currently, Coinbase has an electronic money institution license and virtual asset service provider registration in Ireland; a crypto license in Germany; and national registrations in other EU member states including Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.
The company, which is headquartered in San Francisco, is one of the largest crypto trading venues globally.
The expansion move comes at a difficult time for the crypto industry. Crypto companies have been seeing their volumes decline, while fundraising has slowed, as macroeconomic conditions have gotten tougher and regulatory scrutiny has mounted.
Coinbase is banking on growth in the European Union, a continent with a total population of 450 million, and other international hubs, as it faces regulatory pressure back home — not least from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which accuses the company of operating an illegal securities venue.
Coinbase disputes the SEC’s claims, and is fighting the case. However, its aim is for there to be formal crypto legislation, rather than constant litigation in the courts.
Paul Grewal, Coinbase’s chief legal officer, said that progress has been “slower” than he’d like when it comes to achieving crypto regulation in the U.S. But he’s hopeful for more regulatory clarity in the future.
“We’re now seeing in court cases real questions being asked about the U.S. approach to crypto regulation and in particular securities regulation,” he said. “Judge after judge is asking serious questions about the SEC’s interpretation of our US securities laws and, frankly, challenging some fundamental points that the SEC has pressed on whether tokens are securities at all.”
“MiCA, on the other hand, I think offers … a more substantial and serious approach to crypto regulation in that it isn’t caught up with the jurisdictional fights the turf battles that we have the United States over whether particular transactions or securities transactions or commodities transactions. Instead, the focus is on keeping consumers and investors safe.”
As a market for crypto, digital asset usage is less prevalent than it is in the U.S. According to Chainalysis data, Central, Northern, and Western Europe is the second-biggest crypto economy in the world, behind only North America. However, Coinbase expects lots of growth in the region.
“In recent quarters, Coinbase has earned as much as 15%, or even 20%, of top line revenue from across Europe,” Grewal told CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal — the firm reported $808.3 million of sales globally in the second quarter of 2023, according to its latest earnings report.
“But for us, we’re going to approach the opportunity in a responsible, measured way, we’re going to let our customers drive our investments and drive our focus on what opportunities to pursue. It’s an exciting future.”
Coinbase has also decided to make Germany its regional “talent hub,” and will look to ramp up its hiring in that market to localize and tailor its product specifically for Germany.
“We are very grateful to Germany for all the support they have provided,” Murugesan told CNBC. “Our German operation has grown from strength to strength and more than doubled in headcount.”
EU-first approach to products
Coinbase may even look to launch new products in Europe first before rolling them out in the U.S., Murugesan said.
The EU will be a “testbed” for Coinbase to think about “utilitarian” functions of crypto that people need in their daily lives, such as payments and transacting rather than trading, he told CNBC.
“With MiCA and the clarity that it offers, it allows us to innovate,” he added. “And hopefully, we’ll see some of those daily use cases roll out in EU first.”
Daniel Seifert, vice president of EMEA for Coinbase, said the company is also looking to launch integrations with other payment providers to make it easier for users to access digital tokens through Coinbase.
“There’s lots of exciting plans for the region that we’re going to see in the coming weeks and months,” Seifert said.
— CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report