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Berlusconi pledges support for bilaterals

The Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, in Rome. Keystone

As holder of the European Union presidency for the next six months, Italy says it is ready to help Switzerland seal closer ties with the EU.

This content was published on July 8, 2003 - 20:52

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said he would push forward a new set of bilateral treaties between Bern and Brussels.

Berlusconi was speaking after talks with the Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, in Rome on Tuesday.

Couchepin said the goal of his visit was to ensure there was a strong enough political will on the side of the Italians to move the bilateral negotiations forward.

"I think that was achieved," Couchepin told swissinfo. "The Italians have decided to give a political impulse to end the talks, and to do so before the end of the year.

"We need to work through the technical issues and then have a political discussion that allows us to coordinate and to give and take depending on the different dossiers."

Despite the upbeat tone, correspondents said it was impossible to judge whether the meeting had made progress in resolving differences between the two countries.

Berlusconi said he knew Switzerland wanted talks to continue as soon as possible, but he did not commit to a specific deadline.

Unhappy

Italy is known to be unhappy with Switzerland’s policies on taxation and banking secrecy, and has used both political and legal means to try to undermine them.

The key issue at present is whether Rome will back Swiss efforts to join the EU’s Schengen agreement on crime and legal cooperation.

Switzerland is keen to join but is concerned about an article on fighting tax fraud. Bern fears this could be extended to tax evasion, which would oblige Switzerland to lift banking secrecy if another Schengen member demanded legal assistance.

Negotiators in Brussels last week told swissinfo that they could not reach agreement on the point, and that the question would now have to be “resolved at a political level”.

The head of the Swiss negotiating team, Monique Jametti Greiner, said: “If the will is there on the EU side and the Swiss side, then a solution is feasible.”

Tax fraud

On Tuesday, Couchepin told swissinfo that he had brought up the issue of tax fraud and the Schengen agreement with Italy’s deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini. Members of Couchepin’s entourage said Fini had assured the Swiss president that a solution could be found.

The Swiss have other demands too. One is that the nine bilateral treaties being negotiated with Brussels – of which Schengen is but one – must be passed as a package, rather than separately.

Italy has baulked at cooperating with the Swiss on numerous occasions in the past because of its objections to banking secrecy.

Amnesty

A recent tax amnesty granted to Italians who repatriated their savings held abroad did not help to improve strained ties between the two countries.

And Italy made no friends in Bern when it blocked an EU deal on savings taxation (since passed) because it objected to exemptions granted to countries which have banking secrecy. Switzerland had refused to sign up to the agreement unless it was given guarantees that banking secrecy would not be compromised.

Other issues such as cannabis smuggling and trans-Alpine traffic have increased tensions in an already difficult relationship.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Berlusconi said during his European Union presidency he will push forward a new set of bilateral treaties between Switzerland and the EU.

But it is unclear whether Rome will back Swiss efforts to join the EU’s Schengen agreement on crime and legal cooperation.

The agreement is one of the nine bilateral treaties that Bern is negotiating with Brussels.

Switzerland is concerned about an article in the Schengen agreement on fighting tax fraud.

Bern fears this could extend to tax evasion, which would oblige Switzerland to lift banking secrecy if another Schengen member demanded legal assistance.

Italy is known to be unhappy with Switzerland’s policies on taxation and banking secrecy.

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