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Merz questions Germany and bank bonuses

A smiling Finance Minister Merz returned to his desk

(Keystone)

Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz says he will talk in the next few weeks to his German counterpart who called for Switzerland to be put on a tax-haven blacklist.

Merz made the comments on Monday as he returned to work after suffering a heart attack six weeks ago and undergoing a multiple-bypass operation.

The minister said he was "not really impressed" by comments made last month by the German finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, who accused Switzerland of tolerating illegal tax practices. Steinbrück has called for a clampdown on tax havens.

"Germany has some homework to do," Merz responded at a news conference in Bern.

Merz said he would meet his German counterpart for a "friendly talk" to remind him of German fiscal policies that allowed tax payers to withhold money at the expense of the state.

He also said he did not have any major concerns about his budget despite the financial crisis because tax revenues were holding up well. Some adjustments might be needed for 2010, he added.

"I consider it my duty to help solve the problems for the economy and the public finances that emerged as a result of the crisis," Merz said.

He added that a "healthy country" needed sound budgetary planning, and a consistent and reasonable tax system. Merz said it was important to provide funds for those who lost out in the crisis and for those who will be less well off in the future.

During Merz's absence the government announced a rescue package for the country's financial system, including a SFr6 billion ($5.18 billion) credit for UBS and a $54 billion loan by the Swiss National Bank.

The cabinet is also considering bolstering guarantees for bank deposits. Parliament is due to debate the financial crisis next month.

Regulations

However, Merz warned against overreaction by imposing too many new regulations and a hasty economic stimulus programme.

"It is all a question of finding the right balance," Merz said.

He said state investment projects make no sense if their economic impacts take too long.

The 65-year-old Merz, a member of the centre-right Radical Party, which has traditionally close links with the business community, also said the crisis had not undermined his confidence in the self-regulation of the market.

But the government plan was necessary to strengthen the financial system and to consolidate UBS, which had a crucial role for the country's economy, he added.

Merz called on bankers who have received large bonus payments in recent years to consider returning the money.

"From a legal point of view there is nothing we can do, but I appeal to all those concerned to act responsibly."

Gratitude

As for his personal situation, Merz said the heart attack had shown him how quickly death can come into a healthy man's life.

He said the experience had been enriching for him, and he was grateful for the people who helped him survive and recover, as well as for the hundreds of wishes for his health.

"I don't think I've changed through the incident, but it made me think," he said.

He also thanked Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf who acted as finance minister in his absence.

Merz said he felt fit enough to resume his post in the cabinet and to assume the Swiss presidency next year as planned.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

In brief

Merz, who is 65, is the second-oldest minister in the seven-member cabinet.

He has served as finance minister since his election in 2003 and next year is slated take over as Swiss president, a role that rotates each year.

Merz, a member of the centre-right Radical Party, is considered a fiscal hardliner.

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Finance Ministry

The finance ministry is in charge of tax and customs, as well information technology.

The portfolio includes the Federal Personnel Office and the management of the federal administration buildings.

The ministry has about 9,000 employees.

In addition to their own portfolios, the seven Swiss ministers assign a deputy role to another cabinet member. Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf is Merz's deputy for the finance ministry.

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