VIENNA May 12 Austria will drop its opposition to the routine sharing of bank account data with its European Union partners as long as bank secrecy for Austrians is maintained, Chancellor Werner Faymann said, appearing to end uncertainty over Vienna's stance.
The EU is trying to negotiate accords to crack down on cross-border tax cheats who it says cost the bloc about 1 trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) a year, but has been blocked by Austria, whose finance minister has taken a hard line in defence of Austrian banking secrecy.
"If this agreement to automatic data exchange does not come at the meeting of finance ministers on May 14, then it will come at the summit of heads of government a week later, which I will attend," Faymann told the Kronen-Zeitung newspaper in an interview published on Sunday.
"There is one main demand, and this is the retention of Austrian banking secrecy for Austrians. If this is not affected, nothing stands in the way of our agreement," he said.
Austria is the only one of the EU's 27 states yet to agree to routinely share data on bank accounts held by foreigners after Luxembourg bowed to pressure last month to end decades of banking secrecy that helped make it a major financial centre.
The discussion has touched a nerve in Austria, stirring up fears of bureaucrats snooping into the affairs of small-time savers that have been exploited by politicians ahead of national elections that are due by September.
Austria had initially signalled that its agreement to automatic data exchange would be tied to other conditions, including the preservation of bilateral tax deals with Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
Faymann said in the interview he would now be happy for an agreement on automatic data exchange to take the place of Austria's deal with Switzerland - "better today than tomorrow".
Switzerland has also rejected automatic data exchanges to crack down on tax cheats, although its finance minister signalled on Saturday that it would support exchanging data with foreign tax authorities under certain conditions.
Austria is expecting a back payment of taxes from Switzerland of about 1 billion euros this year. ($1 = 0.7709 euros) (Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)