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Referendum Swiss banks aim to benefit from UK’s EU reform push

Patrick Odier: Swiss banks could play a constructive role in providing capital and investment in Europe


The UK campaign to reform the European Union could help Switzerland resolve its own clashes with Brussels, which are hampering its banks’ access to European markets, says the head of the Swiss bankers association.

Patrick Odier said the UK debate was "resonating" in Switzerland, which is in conflict with the EU over plans to restrict immigration from EU countries. The dispute is holding up agreements to make it easier for Switzerland's banks to serve clients across Europe.

David Cameron, UK prime minister, last week included greater controls on migration as one of his demands for changing the EU ahead of a referendum on British membership.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Odier indicated that could indirectly help Switzerland. "The fact that is becoming an issue everywhere will probably make it quicker to solve than if it remained a unique problem in our country," he said. "I personally think Europe as a whole will benefit."

He denied, however, that Swiss banks saw direct connection between their own interests and the broader immigration issue. "I don't think it would be correct to hope that a debate, which is so dramatic in its origin, will have a utilitarian benefit for an industry - that is not how we look at it."

Swiss banks hold CHF6.6 trillion assets under management and account for a quarter of the global cross-border asset management business. While geographically at the centre of Europe, the country has refused to join the EU. Instead, Swiss banks gain access to EU markets via locally-based operations and bilateral agreements - helped by Swiss regulators imposing similar rules as those facing EU institutions.

As well as profiting from EU markets, Swiss banks could "potentially play a fantastically positive and constructive role," in providing capital and investment in Europe, Mr Odier said. However attempts to improve access had stalled after a referendum last year in which Swiss voters narrowly approved curbs on immigration from EU countries.

If implemented, such a move would undermine the EU's fundamental principle of the free movement of people. "The EU says, with some ease, 'well, as long as this overwhelming issue is not solved, we're sorry, we cannot discuss other things'," reported Mr Odier. "Cross border business has become second or third priority."

The Swiss have historically welcomed foreigners, Mr Odier said. Lombard Odier, the 200-year-old Geneva-based private bank where he is senior managing partner, was formed by French and Italian families. Nevertheless, like the British, they had serious reservations about the EU.

The UK demands "do resonate pretty well with a big part of the Swiss population, which sees the EU as a formidable source of peace and serenity within its borders, but also a system which is not totally applicable to our traditional values," Mr Odier said.

Switzerland's relationship with the EU is cited as a possible model the UK could follow if it left the bloc. Switzerland has struck bilateral agreements covering a number of sectors - although noticeably not on financial services - and is part of the Schengen agreement on a border-free Europe.

Mr Odier, who will take part in discussions about Europe in the City of London this week, agreed Switzerland's experience "could be interesting" for if the UK did leave the EU. However, he warned against drawing parallels from Swiss banks' difficulties in improving EU market access. "I don't think the base is the same, and I don't think the answer is the same," he said. The City of London is a large, global capital market, while Swiss banks are focused on asset management and private clients.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015

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