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Swiss bankers challenge EU criticism

Published on 16/01/2009

BERN - A Swiss private bankers group on Thursday said the country was ready to negotiate with the European Union to close loopholes enabling tax evasion but warned against attacks from negotiating partners.

"Concretely, vis-à-vis the EU, we are not opposed to a discussion on the elimination of gaps", Michel Derobert, who heads the Swiss Private Bankers’ Association, said in a speech.

"But it is out of the question to accept criticisms from those who attempt to make Switzerland responsible for these gaps", he added.

In particular, Derobert referred to charges by German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, who in 2008 said Switzerland should be placed on the OECD "blacklist" of countries that do not cooperate against tax evasion.

"We should obtain the recognition once and for all that Switzerland does not have a place on the blacklist of the OECD and other intergovernmental organisations", said Derobert.

"We cannot negotiate on one hand with partners while being attacked by the same partners at the same time in other forums."

Switzerland came under increasing pressure since late 2008 over its banking secrecy policy after a massive tax evasion investigation launched by Germany over its citizens who hold bank accounts in neighbouring Liechtenstein.

Banks here are not allowed by law to provide account information to authorities, except in criminal cases.

Instead, banks are required to charge a withholding tax on interest earned on bank deposits belonging to Swiss and EU residents to discourage tax cheats.

Tax revenues from accounts held by people living in the EU reached CHF 653 million (EUR 431 million) in 2007.

Part of the tax income was refunded to the account holders’ resident countries under an agreement reached with the European Union in 2004.

But the European Commission in November proposed tougher new measures to restrict tax evasion.

The bloc’s Taxation Commissioner Laszlo Kovacs said the measures would not work unless non-member states like Switzerland and Liechtenstein agreed.

Derobert said that Switzerland "should be supple and ready to renegotiate" with its European partners but stressed that the country should also remain "firm".

"Switzerland is still opposed to various information exchange systems that are incompatible with its internal judicial order," he said, defending the country’s use of withholding taxes.

[AFP / Expatica]