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STOCKHOLM, March 15 (Reuters) - Nordea, the Nordic region's biggest bank, won shareholder approval on Thursday to transfer its headquarters from Sweden to Finland - the first time since the 2008 financial crisis that a major bank has moved to avoid tougher rules.
The bank is moving to cut the costs of complying with Swedish regulations and to fall under the supervision of the European Central Bank (ECB).
Nordea says it wants a level playing field with rivals supervised by the ECB, which since 2014 has sought to establish common standards across the euro zone, which includes Finland but not Sweden.
"We only have one fifth of our business in Sweden. We are actually more a European bank than a Swedish bank or a Finnish bank," Chairman Bjorn Wahlroos said at the bank's annual general meeting, which voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to approve the move.
"The (euro zone's) European Banking Union gives us a regulatory framework, and a stable framework, that is actually equal," he said.
The Swedish government has long sought higher taxes on the banking sector, much to Wahlroos's annoyance.
Nordea said a year ago it could move its headquarters if the Swedish government raised fees to cover the cost of winding up failed banks, prompting the centre-left coalition to soften some terms.
Sweden's demand for big capital buffers has acted as a stamp of quality for buyers of bank debt, lowering borrowing costs for Swedish banks.
Nordea's proposal to move, which needed a two-thirds majority to pass, got 96 percent of the votes at the meeting.
Nordea's plan to move has drawn strong criticism in Sweden, with unions and politicians accusing the bank of being greedy and shortsighted.
The Swedish Shareholders' Association voted against the proposal, arguing that more time should have been taken over such an important decision and that conditions for banking in Sweden could change after a September general election.
"It's not like changing your shirt," said Per Westerberg, chairman of the association. "We don't vote 'no' because we think the arguments are wrong, but because the board is moving too fast," he said.
Nordea expects one-off savings of around 0.9 to 1.2 billion euros from the move. (Reporting by Johan Ahlander, Editing by Simon Johnson and Adrian Croft)