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EU: ‘unacceptable’ for Austria to hold up bank secrecy reforms

It is unacceptable for Austria to refuse to reform its bank secrecy rules, the European Commission said Monday, after fellow holdout Luxembourg signalled it was ready to change in the face of growing uproar over tax evasion.

“It is unacceptable that a member state blocks this,” a spokeswoman for EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Semeta said.

“It would appear very difficult for (Austria) to maintain its position … when all member states are ready” to agree the automatic exchange of bank account information, spokeswoman Emer Traynor told a press conference.

Traynor said the EU already had “very clear rules and very strong standards” on tax evasion and bank secrecy which were supported by 25 member states — with the exception of Luxembourg and Austria.

At the weekend, Luxembourg, home to a large and thriving financial services sector, signalled it was now ready however to be more transparent as the Cyprus debt bailout and revelations about tax evasion put the spotlight on tax havens.

“We want to strengthen cooperation with foreign tax authorities,” Finance Minister Luc Frieden said in a German newspaper interview.

“The international trend is going toward an automatic exchange of bank deposit information. We no longer strictly oppose that,” Frieden said.

“Luxembourg does not rely on clients who want to save on their taxes,” he said, citing interest payments to foreign clients as an example of data that could be given to home countries as a matter of course.

Traynor said the Commission “welcomed very strongly” Frieden’s comments, adding that it seemed to pave the way for progress on fighting the problem.

Semeta said later that he was “very pleased to see” that many member states “have reviewed where they stand on these issues and intensified their political will to act.

“Now it is time to put words into action. I hope to see rapid adoption of our proposals for a stronger EU stance against tax fraud and evasion,” Semeta said in a statement.

Earlier Monday, Austrian Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger said the country should stick to its guns.

“The banking secrecy must remain,” Spindelegger told a joint press conference in Vienna with European Parliament Vice-President Othmar Karas.

“Austria is not a tax haven” and retaining the principle of banking secrecy did not make it one, he said.

Finance Minister Maria Fekter, a member of Spindelegger’s conservative People’s Party, said Friday that Austrians “have the right to have their savings not just protected in terms of money, but also from an exaggerated access to information exchanges.”