GENEVA Dec 27 Switzerland's aim of preserving
banking secrecy has been cast in doubt after the finance
minister suggested all options are open, reopening the debate
over a pillar of the country's economy.
Switzerland became a tax pariah after data leaks established
what many had long suspected - that many billions of dollars had
been stashed in Swiss banks to escape taxation elsewhere.
The Swiss government has pledged its commitment to European
tax deals allowing EU citizens to pay tax on secret Swiss
accounts without revealing their identity, even after German
politicians sank that country's deal this month.
But more recent comments from Swiss Finance Minister Eveline
Widmer-Schlumpf raised the ire of politicians in Switzerland,
even as they were welcomed by some neighbours.
"Of course we will enter a dialogue with the EU Commission
on possible information and what we are prepared to discuss and
what we would want for it in return," she told a Dec. 20 news
The remark sparked a flurry of opposition in Switzerland
after some politicians interpreted it as an attack on the
country's banking sector, since it implied an automatic exchange
of data with the EU could be an option, which would mark a
U-turn in Switzerland's stance.
"Her comments annoyed me greatly," Philipp Mueller, leader
of Switzerland's Free Democrats (FDP), told the Tages-Anzeiger
newspaper on Saturday.
"She's betraying her Cabinet colleagues and (chief finance
diplomat) Michael Ambuehl by changing her mind only a day after
the government rejects an automatic exchange of information, and
she's weakening Switzerland's negotiating position."
He said that tax negotiations should be moved from the
Finance Ministry to the Foreign Ministry as a result.
Widmer-Schlumpf's spokesman Roland Meier said her comments
were meant to open a domestic debate about how Switzerland
exchanges information, given unrelenting pressure on secrecy
amid a raft of new accords the Swiss government has agreed to.
However there could not be any taboos in the domestic debate
on how Switzerland could or should exchange information in
future, he said.
Meier stressed that she had not referred to an automated
exchange of information and that she continued to back the
government's recently introduced "clean money strategy" which
aims to stop the flow of untaxed money.
Lorenz Hess, a senior member of Widmer-Schlumpf's BDP party,
also hit back in the mass-market Blick newspaper, accusing the
FDP's Mueller of playing party politics and his party colleague
Ruedi Noser of being a lobbyist for certain banks.
Despite the efforts to soothe political jitters,
Widmer-Schlumpf's remarks have reopened the secrecy debate, with
foreign officials seizing on her remarks as evidence Switzerland
is considering making further concessions on secrecy.
EU Ambassador Richard Jones welcomed her comments and told
the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper that they came as no surprise
because international developments showed the world was moving
towards such automatic exchanges of information.
Norbert Walter-Borjans, finance minister of North-Rhine
Westphalia in Germany, said her remarks vindicated his
opposition to a withholding tax pact, which his party
successfully brought to collapse.
(Additional reporting by Katharina Bart and Paul Arnold in
Zurich and Madeline Chambers in Berlin; editing by Ron Askew)