* Netherlands, Belgium, Austria seek bank data from Germany
* Pressure remains on Swiss bank secrecy despite concessions
* Swiss have yet to sign major tax deals
* Swiss condemn use of stolen data
(Adds German minister, paragraphs 9-11)
By Jason Rhodes and Ben Berkowitz
BERNE/AMSTERDAM, Feb 3 European states lined up
behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel to expose tax cheats in a
combined assault on the Swiss banking secrecy laws that help
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble sent shivers
through the large Swiss private banking industry this week when
he said Berlin was prepared to pay for stolen data belonging to
potential tax cheats at a Swiss bank, raising the bar in the
fight against tax evasion. [ID:nLDE6101NM]
Now, the Dutch, Belgian and Austrian governments have also
flagged interest in obtaining a copy of a compact disc with
tax-sensitive data that Berlin may soon buy from an informant.
Swiss Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz said on Wednesday
the Swiss would not help Germany or others hunt tax cheats on
the basis of stolen Swiss bank data, but tried to defuse the
escalating row by saying Berne would not retaliate.
"It is obvious that such a theft is a criminal act," Merz
said. "Switzerland should therefore not offer administrative
(tax) assistance in such cases either now or in future."
But he added that Switzerland would continue to engage in
talks aimed at signing a new treaty with Germany.
Coordinated action by European governments poses a serious
headache for Merz at a time when Berne is struggling to honour a
deal with Washington to end a tax row against UBS
UBSN.VX(UBS.N). Merz came under pressure to resign last year
for his handling of the UBS case.
Switzerland, which remains under siege as the world's top
offshore centre despite having promised to relax bank secrecy,
has named seasoned diplomat and UBS dealmaker Michael Ambuehl to
a new tax job to help it defuse the many tax spats it faces.
Merkel's chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, called for both
sides to show good sense.
"A sensible solution is in our interests," Pofalla told
German Bild daily, adding talks between Berlin and Berne were
taking place in an atmosphere of trust.
However, he stuck to Germany's position that if officials
found the data would lead them to a large number of tax cheats,
the state would do what it could to get hold of the information.
PRESSURE FROM ALL SIDES
Many European governments are under pressure to raise tax
revenues after injecting billions of euros into several large
banks to fight the financial crisis.
A Dutch finance ministry spokesman said the Netherlands,
where deputy finance minister Jan Kees de Jager is pushing
through a crackdown on tax dodgers, told Berlin they would be
interested in having any data on Dutch taxpayers.
Austria, which protects its own bank clients with secrecy
rules, also showed an interest.
"Should there be evidence that the CD (with the stolen bank
data) contains information on Austrian taxpayers, we would
naturally have great interest in analysing those," a spokesman
for Austrian Finance Minister Josef Proell was quoted as saying
in Der Standard newspaper.
Belgian newspaper De Standaard said Belgium, which is giving
up banking secrecy, also wanted copies of the Swiss data if
Germany got them. The finance ministry declined to comment.
Former German Finance Minister Peer Steinbruck repeatedly
accused Switzerland of helping tax evaders and was likened to a
Nazi by one Swiss parliamentarian after he compared Swiss
politicians to "Indians" running scared from the cavalry.
Switzerland promised in March to sign a raft of new tax
treaties to avoid ending up on an global blacklist. But it still
needs to seal tax deals with large neighbours Italy and Germany.
Nearly $6 trillion of wealth is managed in Switzerland, with
potentially almost one-third of it undeclared, analysts have
said. Bankers fear the latest set of attacks could undermine the
country's entire private banking model. [ID:nLDE6110ZM]
Several European governments have tried to lure back some of
the money hidden in tax havens by launching tax amnesties.
Wealthy Dutch savers last year declared 2.15 billion euros
($3.01 billion) under a penalty-free amnesty, with a third of
the declared accounts hidden in Switzerland.
Britain has also targeted wealthy residents with hidden
offshore money via a so-called voluntary disclosure programme.
The most successful amnesty so far has been a Italian one,
which recouped nearly 100 billion euros in three months, most of
it hidden in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino.
France and Germany, on the other hand, have not launched
amnesties but have accepted stolen bank data from informants.
For a TIMELINE of Swiss bank secrecy events click on
(Additional reporting by Antonia van de Velde in Brussels and
Sylvia Westall in Vienna; editing by Mike Nesbit and Charles