January 12, 2012 / 5:31 PM / 7 years ago

Switzerland eyes tax deals, US talks 'not so easy'

* Talks underway with Italy to find solution, Swiss finance minister says

* Americans “not easy partners” in long-running dispute, she says

GENEVA, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Switzerland is discussing a tax deal with Italy and is still pressing ahead with difficult talks with the United States on banking secrecy, Swiss President and Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said on Thursday.

Switzerland’s long tradition of banking secrecy has allowed rich foreigners to park savings out of sight of their own tax authorities for decades and, for many foreigners, made Swiss bank accounts a byword for dodging taxes.

But foreign governments, led by the United States, are forcing tax havens to reveal their secrets, emboldened by efforts to root out suspected terrorist funding and by a need to boost revenues depleted by the global economic crisis.

Switzerland has already agreed to allow tax evasion investigations with countries including the United States and Germany, and struck deals with Germany and Britain to enable them to claw taxes back from their nationals.

Widmer-Schlumpf said a similar deal had been discussed with Italy, although the new Italian government under Prime Minister Mario Monti has more pressing concerns and it might not happen this year.

“We had good contacts with (former Economy Minister Giulio) Tremonti before the change of government. We agreed we have to find a solution similar to the solution with Germany and Britain,” she told a news conference in Geneva.

“Now the situation has changed a bit and I have to start again with the finance minister, who is now prime minister, Mr. Monti. He also agrees to continue discussions.”

The deals with Germany and Britain need ratification and are under threat from the European Commission, which says they infringe EU rules and may be too soft on tax evasion.

There is also a threat to the German deal from within Germany’s parliament, where some politicians complain tax-evaders could get off lightly.

The head of the Swiss private bankers’ association, Nicolas Pictet, said in a magazine interview published on Thursday that he did not underestimate the risk of such a challenge.

“If the Bundesrat rejects the agreement, we might worry that the British will question the point of being the only ones to ratify it,” he told the weekly magazine L’Hebdo.

Widmer-Schlumpf said she remained convinced a solution would be found with Germany and Britain, although she said it was not Switzerland’s problem, since the other two countries had always maintained the deals were sound in European Union law.

“We will see in a few weeks or months,” she said.

Switzerland is also trying to do a deal with Washington to end a long-running dispute over Americans who hold Swiss bank accounts, and Widmer-Schlumpf said it would be better to find a way to settle things than to fight for years.

“With the United States the situation is not so easy, these are not easy partners, we know that. But in any case they are constructive.” (Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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