* Steinbrueck oversaw tax haven crackdown as minister
* Accuses Merkel of failure to combat tax evasion
* Eight-point plan foresees stronger punishment of banks
By Noah Barkin
BERLIN, April 8 German Chancellor Angela
Merkel's main challenger in a September election accused her
government on Monday of failing in the battle against tax
evasion by seeking cozy deals with havens like Switzerland when
it should be raising pressure on them.
With his Social Democrats (SPD) far behind Merkel's
conservatives less than half a year before the German vote, Peer
Steinbrueck may be hoping to reduce the gap by focusing on one
of his signature policy issues.
As finance minister in Merkel's first-term "grand
coalition", Steinbrueck led a high-profile campaign to root out
tax evasion, famously describing the Swiss at the height of his
crackdown as Indians running scared from the cavalry.
An EU bailout of Cyprus, the recent leak of thousands of
holders of secret bank accounts and the belated admission last
week by former French budget minister Jerome Cahuzac that he
held a foreign account has thrust the issue of tax havens back
onto the policy agenda in Europe.
"Merkel's government still doesn't seem to understand that
the battle against tax evasion is closely linked to the
stabilisation of the euro zone," Steinbrueck said in Berlin.
"Time has been wasted. Merkel's government is responsible
for this and for the hectic activism that has suddenly broken
The German government rejected the suggestion it had gone
soft on tax evaders, saying it had been pursuing the issue for
years and that it would be on the agenda of upcoming meetings of
the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Group of 20 (G20).
"It is all a persistent, coherent plan we have been working
on for many years and which is gradually bearing fruit," finance
ministry spokesman Martin Kotthaus said.
But in a sign the issue could come back to haunt the
government, a cartoon in German daily Tagesspiegel showed
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble asleep and snoring in his
wheelchair through 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, only to wake up in
2013 and declare: "We need to fight this tax evasion problem
once and for all!"
At a news conference on Monday, Steinbrueck presented an
eight-point plan for combating tax evasion that included
stronger monitoring of the OECD's tax haven "black list",
tougher punishment for banks that offer services that help in
tax evasion and the creation of a federal body to pursue tax
evaders in Germany.
His party helped block an attempt by Merkel's government
last year to sign a bilateral deal with Switzerland that would
have imposed taxes on assets stashed by German citizens. The SPD
said the deal would have let off tax evaders too easily.
Meanwhile, signs emerged over the weekend that the public
debate could force new concessions from European countries that
continue to defend secrecy in their banking systems.
Luxembourg's Finance Minister Luc Frieden told a German
newspaper on Sunday that his country was dropping its opposition
to the automatic exchange of bank depositor information within
the European Union.
However Finance Minister Maria Fekter of Austria, the other
EU country that refuses to share this information, vowed to
fight "like a lion" to defend bank secrecy at home, drawing a
rebuke from the European Commission.
"The spotlight is now on Austria. If it continues to resist
this inevitable progress towards greater transparency, it will
find itself in a lonely and quite unsustainable position,"
Algirdas Semeta, the European commissioner in charge of tax
policy said in a statement to Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Holger Hansen and Stephen Brown,
Editing by Gareth Jones)