Swiss banks should adopt a more open approach to foreign financial supervisory bodies, according to the country's banking regulator.
Daniel Zuberbühler, the head of the Swiss Federal Banking Commission (SFBC), said on Friday the banks were using Swiss banking secrecy law as grounds for not cooperating fully with international agencies.
In a speech to mark the commission's 30th anniversary, Zuberbühler insisted that the SFBC was totally committed to banking secrecy. However, he said the banks should ease their restrictions to enable international supervisory bodies to carry out on-site inspections at branches of foreign banks in Switzerland.
Zuberbühler's comments on banking transparency came as European Union leaders meeting in the Spanish city of Seville have criticised Switzerland for its reluctance to cooperate on the issue of taxation of EU citizens' savings.
During the two-day meeting the ministers said they hoped the Swiss authorities would change their minds and acknowledge that all citizens of an EU state should pay witholding tax.
Brussels wants to clamp down on tax evasion and is seeking access to information about EU citizens' savings in Swiss banks so that it can tax them accordingly. But Switzerland has so far resisted pressure to divulge that information, arguing that the country's banking secrecy regulations are "not negotiable".
The issue threatens to undermine attempts by Switzerland to forge closer relations with the EU. Speaking on the sidelines of the Seville summit, the German finance minister, Hans Eichel, said Switzerland risked becoming "more and more isolated".
"We really wish that Switzerland would reconsider its position," Eichel said, adding that the issue was damaging good neighbourly relations.
In response, Daniel Eckmann, a spokeman for the Finance Ministry said Switzerland had made a generous offer to levy a withholding tax on EU citizens' income from savings and send the money to Brussels. But he said: "It is unreasonable to expect a non-EU member to comply with EU regulations."
Switzerland should come clean
Daniel Zuberbühler said it was very difficult for the banking commission to defend Switzerland's position on tax issues. He added that Switzerland was laying itself open to charges of protecting tax evaders.
"The best protection for Swiss banking secrecy therefore is to be clean in financial sector regulation and consistent in the fight against economic crimes and terrorism," he said.
Under current law, banking secrecy can be lifted only in cases where an account holder is suspected of being involved in criminal or terrorist activity, as defined by Swiss law.
Swiss and EU negotiators held a first meeting in Bern on Tuesday to try to resolve their differences on the taxation issue, but failed to make any headway.