BERNE The European Union official in charge of tax policy tried to persuade Switzerland on Monday to agree to surrender more information about clients of its big banking industry as part of a drive to combat tax evasion.
Commissioner Algirdas Semeta's meeting with Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf in Bern came as British Prime Minister David Cameron was due to put his aim of fighting tax evasion on the agenda of a G8 summit he is hosting on Monday and Tuesday.
"It is widely accepted worldwide today that the era of bank secrecy is over," Semeta told a news conference after the talks.
"Switzerland can gain from a stronger tax agreement with the EU with automatic exchange of information at its core. It would be a clear signal from Switzerland that it supports fair play."
Switzerland, the world's biggest offshore financial centre, with $2 trillion in assets under management, is under pressure from both the EU and the United States to end bank secrecy as cash-strapped states seek to stop tax evasion.
The issue has become even more heated in recent months as U.S. authorities threaten to indict Swiss banks, a French minister quit over his Swiss account and Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness admitted evading taxes through a Swiss bank.
EU finance ministers last month gave the European Commission the go-ahead to negotiate with Switzerland, Liechtenstein, San Marino, Andorra and Monaco to expand the kind of client information banks must surrender to tax authorities.
Widmer-Schlumpf said the Swiss government would probably only be able to start formal talks with the EU in the autumn and would push for global standards on data exchange at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
"For Switzerland it is important that we continue to engage ourselves for a level playing field, not just within the EU but beyond the EU," she said.
A Swiss government commission recommended last week that the country should be ready to share data on foreign depositors with the EU even before a global standard is established for exchanging information on bank clients.
The report said Switzerland should seek in return better access for its financial industry to the EU market, a position Widmer-Schlumpf echoed on Monday, although it was swiftly rebuffed by Semeta.
"The mandate is very clear. Progress on these negotiations is not linked to any specific issue," he said.
Switzerland has accused the EU of being protectionist and fragmenting global markets with new rules it says are unfair to countries outside the bloc, including the draft EU law MiFID, which imposes stringent obligations on companies from non-EU countries wanting to do business in the bloc.
(Reporting by Emma Thomasson, editing by Gareth Jones)