Europe pushes Switzerland to end bank secrecy

Tue May 14, 2013 2:09pm EDT
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By John O'Donnell and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union finance ministers gave the green light on Tuesday to start talks with Switzerland and Liechtenstein about surrendering bank data, as Europe stepped up its fight against tax evasion.

The move, described as 'historic' by Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, redoubles pressure on Switzerland to open up account details and will likely pave the way for Austria to ditch its own bank secrecy for foreigners.

By giving the European Commission the go-ahead to negotiate with Switzerland, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Andorra and Monaco, EU finance ministers hope to push for the same rules to be applied to these countries as within the European Union.

The talks had long been opposed by EU members Luxembourg and Austria, which were seeking to defend their own bank secrecy, but on Tuesday their finance ministers dropped those objections.

"In the battle against tax evasion, what we achieved today was undoubtedly a step forward," Algirdas Semeta, the European commissioner in charge of tax policy, told reporters after the meeting of ministers.

The Swiss government gave a guarded response. A spokesman for Switzerland's department of finance underscored the country's willingness to cooperate and said it would now consider how to respond.

Austria's support is a symbolically important gesture that takes it closer to ending its own bank secrecy for foreigners, bringing it into line with the rest of the EU.

Most developed countries share information on taxpayers and depositors "on demand". But since this requires the authorities in the requesting jurisdiction to suspect wrongdoing, it only has limited impact in uncovering unlawful behavior.   Continued...