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Czech minister supports Swiss in secrecy row

Some countries want Switzerland to open up about banking secrecy

(Keystone)

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has backed Switzerland in the row with other European countries over banking secrecy, according to a newspaper report.

His comments come as Swiss Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz met his Austrian and Luxembourg counterparts on Sunday to discuss how to deal with attacks on banking secrecy.

Schwarzenberg, whose country currently holds the rotating European Union presidency, told the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper that people should not try to "break" Swiss tradition.

"Certainly a couple of million euros escape one tax coffer or the other," the paper quoted Schwarzenberg as saying.

"But the country's independence and the tradition of the autonomous and neutral Switzerland are to be valued higher," he said.

Switzerland had been a solid refuge for many years. "Why do you have to break that at all costs?" said Schwarzenberg, who has Czech and Swiss citizenship.

European countries, spurred on by France and Germany, are also threatening to blacklist Switzerland as a tax hotspot when the world's leading 20 economies meet in London next month.

Merz and the finance ministers from Austria and Luxembourg, both EU countries with forms of banking secrecy, held their meeting in Luxembourg.

A statement from the Swiss finance ministry released ahead of Sunday said that the gathering would serve primarily to coordinate points of common interest and would cover a range of issues, "including the debate surrounding a possible blacklist of so-called 'tax havens'".

Increased pressure

Pressure on Switzerland has also been coming from the United States.

Hard hit was UBS, the largest Swiss bank, which was forced to pay $780 million (SFr915 million) in fines and disclose the identity of around 300 of its American clients to the US authorities during a tax evasion probe.

The authorities are still pursuing a civil lawsuit against UBS to gain access to the details of another 52,000 wealthy Americans.

Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf on Sunday rejected the demand. "In the case of the 300 UBS accounts, they claimed a concrete suspicion of tax fraud," she said in an interview to the NZZ am Sonntag.

"But in the case if the 52,000 client data, the US has launched a fishing expedition. The US is breaking all rules of law with this," she said.

She added that she had told US Attorney General Eric Holder at a meeting on March 2 in the US that this was seen as an "attack on Switzerland".

Under Swiss law, Swiss banks are forbidden to divulge information on clients except in cases where Swiss criminal legislation has been broken. Tax fraud is considered a criminal offence, but tax evasion is not, although it can result in fines.

Switzerland's defence

On Friday Merz said the government was willing to improve international cooperation to combat tax offences.

He said that Switzerland's banking secrecy remained intact and rejected criticism over Switzerland's tax laws. However, the country has already hinted that it may start to recognise tax evasion as a crime.

A group of experts is currently advising the government. Among its members is Michael Ambühl, the state secretary for foreign affairs.

He told the newspaper Sonntag that the time was right to discuss the future shape of banking secrecy.

But he said it was not possible to say yet what form a solution would take. "What is certain is that Switzerland will choose a solution that guarantees that it remains an attractive financial centre," said Ambühl.

swissinfo with agencies

Evasion or fraud?

People wishing to dodge paying taxes on their assets can do so by three means: avoidance, evasion and fraud.

Avoidance is the legitimate means of structuring finances so they don't fall under the scope of taxable assets. This can be done, for example, by setting up a trust fund or by changing country residence or nationality.

Evasion is the deliberate concealing the true state of assets from the tax authorities – in other words, lying about the extent of your assets. This is a civil offence in Switzerland and some other countries, such as Austria and Liechtenstein, but criminal in most states.

The main distinction between evasion and fraud is that the perpetrator tells lies on official documentation. Unless tax fraud can be proved, Swiss banks are not obliged to hand over details of client assets to investigators. In some cases this information is needed before fraud can be established in the first place.

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