Feisty Swiss minister shakes up secretive banks

ZURICH Tue Jun 11, 2013 9:28am EDT

Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf leaves a session of the Committee for Economic Affairs and Taxation on the Swiss-U.S. tax agreement during the summer parliament session in Bern June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf leaves a session of the Committee for Economic Affairs and Taxation on the Swiss-U.S. tax agreement during the summer parliament session in Bern June 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Ruben Sprich

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ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland's Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, a lone woman in the male bastion of Swiss finance, is short of friends as she seeks to end the country's reputation as a haven for tax cheats, but has a track record of getting her own way.

The 57-year-old finance minister has already taken tough decisions in response to the global financial crisis, which hit the liquidity of the country's vast banking industry and looks likely to end the secrecy that has underpinned it.

She helped organize the bailout of the biggest Swiss bank UBS in 2008 and negotiated a deal the following year to prevent it being indicted on charges of helping rich Americans dodge tax.

But she faces her trickiest task yet in the next two weeks in persuading a hostile parliament to let other banks sidestep secrecy laws and hand over information to U.S. authorities in the hope of avoiding criminal charges that could destroy them.

She is also due to deliver a report on how much bank client data to share with other countries in future, which could recommend moving towards an automatic exchange of information.

That, and her proposal last month to allow Swiss authorities the same access to bank clients' data, would effectively overturn secrecy laws dating from 1934 which helped make Switzerland the world's biggest offshore center with $2 trillion in assets.

"She has a lot of enemies," said Daniel Bochsler, Zurich University assistant professor of comparative politics.

"Everybody knows that bank secrecy is dead. It is just a question of how it will die. They are all trying to pin the blame on her, but she is not the only protagonist."

Former Labor Minister Pascal Couchepin joked that if Switzerland's world tennis champion Roger Federer lost, some people would say it was the fault of Widmer-Schlumpf.

BRANDED A TRAITOR

She has been a hate figure for the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) -- the country's biggest -- since 2007, when parliament voted her in to the seven-member coalition cabinet in place of SVP firebrand leader Christoph Blocher.

Branding her a traitor, the anti-immigration party ejected Widmer-Schlumpf and her moderate local wing the following year, prompting her to set up the new centrist BDP, which came from nowhere to win 5 percent of the vote in 2011 elections.

BDP head Martin Landolt says Widmer-Schlumpf can handle the pressure. "She has to convey unpleasant messages and realities that people don't like," he told Reuters. "She has always had to fight, always been criticized, she doesn't know any other way."

The minister made more enemies in the Swiss establishment when she worked with Swiss National Bank Chairman Philipp Hildebrand on a law passed in 2011 to force UBS and Credit Suisse to hold more capital than their global rivals in a bid to prevent another taxpayer bailout of a big bank.

Hildebrand was one of Widmer-Schlumpf's few close allies since she served on the SNB's supervisory council in 2004-2007, but was forced to quit in 2012 after the SVP helped expose details of controversial foreign exchange trades by his wife.

The SVP accused Widmer-Schlumpf of trying to protect Hildebrand during the scandal and continues to attack her every move, depicting her as a witch-like figure in a new campaign to anchor bank secrecy for Swiss citizens in the constitution.

"She is the driving force behind the proposal to scrap bank secrecy for Swiss people. There is no pressure from other countries to do so," said banker and SVP politician Thomas Matter, who wants to force a referendum on the issue.

"It has been a demand of the left for 20 years, and Widmer-Schlumpf now wants to make it happen," he told Reuters.

Switzerland started relaxing strict bank secrecy laws in 2009 to grant foreign tax authorities more information on their own citizens. Widmer-Schlumpf is now suggesting Swiss tax officials should have access to the same data on Swiss citizens.

"UNWAVERING"

With an authorized biography entitled "The Unwaivering One", Widmer-Schlumpf was a practicing lawyer until entering politics in 1998 as the first woman elected to the cantonal government in Graubuenden, where she led the finance department.

She has a reputation as a hard taskmaster with little tolerance for dissent, most recently announcing the departure of Michael Ambuehl, Switzerland's main negotiator in tax disputes with the United States and its European neighbors, after apparent differences over style and strategy.

The wiry and energetic daughter of a cabinet minister, she is reported to sleep and eat little, surviving on a diet of chocolate bars.

In this conservative country, which only granted women the vote at the federal level in 1971, she has had to be tough to get on.

"When we were out with my father, people always used to say 'Oh, you only have three girls'. That was a formative experience for me," she said at a public event in 2012.

When she told a professor that she wanted to have children as well as practice law, he told her she should drop out straight away because "housewives weren't needed in the law".

"Back then I said to myself I want to go into politics as a woman. We women also have a role to play," she said.

Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Widmer-Schlumpf is rarely seen in public with her husband, engineer Christoph, but has still managed to balance career and family.

A mother of three whose first grandchild was born in 2011, Widmer-Schlumpf blocks off time in her agenda to babysit and has promised her daughter more help with childcare when she retires.

BUILDING BRIDGES

With women still a relatively recent novelty in Swiss public life, Widmer-Schlumpf is among the country's most admired politicians, protecting her from some of the right-wing ire.

"She is popular because she has a centrist position and she seems to be a pragmatic bridge-builder. She is acceptable for the left and the moderate right," said Bochsler.

That could help as she seeks to persuade parliament to adopt contested legislation to allow banks to reveal information on their employees and business partners to U.S. investigators.

A Swiss parliamentary committee narrowly recommended that the upper house reject the bill when it meets on Wednesday, but banks are lobbying fiercely in favor, fearful of possible U.S. indictment if they are not freed to cooperate.

The minister, who says she likes chatting to fellow passengers when travelling by train, is also preparing the country for more concessions over bank secrecy as the Group of Eight (G8) leading economies seeks to clamp down on tax evasion.

Widmer-Schlumpf tasked a commission of experts late last year with the question of how much information banks should reveal on their clients to foreign tax authorities.

With Austria and Luxembourg pledging in recent weeks to drop bank secrecy for foreign clients, the commission looks set to conclude that Switzerland has little choice but to follow suit and abandon previous attempts to reach bilateral deals over tax.

"She has to bring people along with her but most of them are still in full denial," said Martin Naville, head of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce. "It is a pretty toxic brew she has to deal with. It would have been easier if it had been someone from one of the biggest parties."

(Additional reporting by Oliver Hirt and Ruben Sprich; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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