Bid to force vote on tax deals falls short

The signatures delivered to Bern turned out to be 1,500 to 3,000 short Keystone

Campaigners seeking to scupper Switzerland's bilateral tax deals with Germany, Britain and Austria have failed to gather enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue in November.

This content was published on October 2, 2012 - 15:05 and agencies

The Swiss parliament has already given the green light to the so-called Rubik agreements, as have Britain and Austria. Germany is dragging its feet over the issue however.

The accords would impose a retroactive levy of up to 41 per cent on capital in offshore bank accounts held by citizens of the three countries, impose a tax on future interest income and allow the account holders to remain anonymous.

Opponents were hoping to halt the deals via a referendum scheduled for November 25, but they have failed to submit enough signatures to the Federal Chancellery in Bern.

The initiative was just 1,500 signatures short of the 50,000 needed to vote on the Berlin agreement, 2,500 short on the agreement with London and 3,000 short on the Vienna deal.

The Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland, which has close ties to the rightwing Swiss People's Party, argues that the deals infringe upon the country's sovereignty by forcing it to act as a tax collector for other states.

The approval process for the pacts has been completed in Austria and Britain, paving the way for the agreements to come into force from January 2013, said Anne Césard, a spokeswoman from the State Secretariat for International Financial Matters, adding that the deal has already been ratified in Austria. In Britain and Switzerland, the formal act will take place once the Swiss referendum has officially been declared unsuccessful.

In Germany, the deal has yet to pass the upper house, where the centre-right government lacks a majority. The issue has become a focal point of the upcoming German national elections.

The Swiss government has sought withholding tax agreements as an alternative to the automatic exchange of bank information to defend the secrecy that is crucial to the country's $2 trillion (SFr1.87 trillion) offshore wealth management industry.


Meanwhile, Switzerland continues to struggle to chart a way forward in its working relationship with the European Union. Switzerland is not an EU member but has concluded more than 120 bilateral treaties with the bloc.

On Tuesday, Swiss newspaper Le Temps revealed that Switzerland is meeting tough resistance to its bilateral approach in Brussels, with the European Commission (EC) advising EU members to take a firm line with Switzerland.

The EC approved a document on September 26 analysing, and largely dismissing, proposals submitted by the Swiss in June for inter-institutional relations.

In the internal report sent to the 27 members of the EU, the EC concludes that the Swiss proposals do not adequately address the union’s concerns.

Bern deemed it “not appropriate” to respond to the leaked document, according to Le Temps, as it was “a stage in the internal decision-making procedure of the EU”.

The EU, Switzerland’s largest trading partner, has repeatedly said that the method of bilateral accords, under which the two sides hammer out agreements on individual policy areas, was outdated. It wants an institutional framework to be created so that all accords would be adjusted as necessary to the community “acquis” – the body of EU law.

But Switzerland rejects any measure which would force it to automatically adjust to developments in EU law, seeing this as an attack on its sovereign rights.

The EU has blocked any negotiations on future accords, in particular an agreement on energy policy, until the matter is resolved.

However, the process is far from over. The EU’s expert group charged with monitoring relations with European Free Trade Association countries, including Switzerland, will discuss the issue again on October 11 in Brussels.

Rubik accords

The Rubik principle was devised by the Association of Foreign Banks in Switzerland. The project wants to separate income from wealth and hand over tax at the source to third countries, while keeping the Swiss bank account holder's anonymity.

The inventors of the system say this strategy will also afford more protection to foreign bank employees in Switzerland from legal action by third countries.

It is hoped that guaranteed anonymity will encourage foreigners with assets being managed in Swiss banks to keep them there.

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Bilateral headache

For the past four years, the EU has been pushing harder and harder for the Swiss to automatically implement changes to European legislation.

Brussels has also demanded that the surveillance of bilateral accords be carried out by a common body and courts, stating that any new agreements would have to include these elements.

These demands collide with Swiss desires to remain a sovereign nation. But the Swiss exporters also want unfettered access to European markets.

In April, the Swiss government decided to take a step in the EU’s direction, but suggesting that any monitoring be carried by an independent Swiss body whose members would be chosen by parliament.

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