* Finance minister says ready to back EU talks with
* Move paves way for Austria to sign up to information
By John O'Donnell and Annika Breidthardt
BRUSSELS, May 14 Austria edged closer to ending
bank secrecy for foreigners on Tuesday, bringing it into line
with the rest of the EU, saying it would not block talks between
the European Union and countries such as Switzerland over
sharing bank information.
Austria has been the last EU holdout on bank secrecy after
Luxembourg changed tack last month.
Finance ministers from the European Union are set to give
the EU Commission the green light to negotiate a new regime for
swapping bank account details with Switzerland and four other
countries including Liechtenstein.
The move had long been blocked by Austria, which was seeking
to defend its own bank secrecy rules, but on Tuesday its finance
minister dropped those objections.
"I would assume that we can unblock," Maria Fekter told
reporters, on the sidelines of the meeting in Brussels.
Austria had long fought to preserve bank secrecy, and the
country's softening on the issue is likely to pave the way for
Vienna to follow Luxembourg in signing up to EU rules on the
exchange of bank account information.
The basis of the talks with Switzerland will be the
so-called EU savings tax directive.
Austria has yet to sign up to that agreement but Fekter's
comments indicate this may be about to change and follows
remarks from Austria's Chancellor this week that Vienna is ready
to agree to give other EU countries access to foreigners' bank
Chancellor Werner Faymann said he hoped for a deal before a
May 22 EU summit when leaders will discuss ways to curb tax
dodging, allowing the bloc to begin talks over bank secrecy with
non-EU states such as Switzerland.
By giving the European Commission the go ahead to negotiate
with Switzerland, EU finance ministers hope to push for the same
rules to be applied to Switzerland as would be applicable to
Austria and the wider European Union.
Austria has been under pressure to fall into line after
Luxembourg recently said that it plans to lift bank secrecy
rules for European Union citizens who have savings based in the
country, marking a sharp shift in policy that will take effect
EU citizens excluding Austrians have about 35 billion euros
($46 billion) in deposits at Austrian banks, a tenth of the
banks' total deposits, while non-EU foreigners have 53 billion
euros in banks in Austria, according to the country's central
Fekter has campaigned to have tax talks include not just
bank accounts, but also trusts and other investment vehicles
designed to cloak investors' identities. She has urged Britain
and the United States to crack down on money laundering and "tax
havens" in their own backyards.
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 behaviour.
Automatic exchange of information allows tax authorities to
more easily spot tax evasion or illicit money flows.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Susan