Parliament mounts defence of banking secrecy

The European Union has put mounting pressure on Switzerland to abandon banking secrecy Keystone

The Swiss parliament has voted in favour of enshrining the concept of banking secrecy in the Swiss constitution.

This content was published on December 3, 2003 - 18:54

The proposals – which now have to go before parliamentary committee – are being seen as a symbolic stand against European Union interference.

In recent years Bern has come under increasing pressure from Brussels to exchange information on bank accounts held in Switzerland by EU residents.

Earlier this year, both sides agreed to a compromise deal that would pave the way for Swiss banks to levy a withholding tax on interest earned by account holders and pass the money on to Brussels.

Signal to EU

Jean-Christian Lambelet, a professor of economics at Lausanne University, told swissinfo that parliament’s show of support sent a signal to the EU.

“It is a gesture - a demonstration, if you like - but it doesn’t have much practical significance,” he said.

The parliamentary votes come as Switzerland continues to negotiate a second round of bilateral accords with the EU.

Lambelet said the show of support for banking secrecy could slow the negotiating process.

“It might slow down negotiations,” he said, “and it might also strengthen the hand of the Swiss negotiators, showing that the Swiss people support banking secrecy.”

“But all in all, I don’t think it really amounts to much,” he added.

Sources in Brussels have indicated that moves towards constitutional endorsement of banking secrecy would do little to ease bilateral negotiations.

Majority in favour

On Tuesday a majority in the House of Representatives voted in favour of a parliamentary initiative - tabled by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party - to include the concept of banking secrecy in the Swiss constitution.

Similar proposals – put forward by four Swiss cantons – were accepted by the Senate on Wednesday.

Separate parliamentary commissions will now examine the different proposals, while a final decision on whether to enshrine banking secrecy in the constitution would be left to a nationwide vote.

People’s Party parliamentarian and banker Hans Kaufmann said the proposals were a significant step towards guaranteeing the long-term future of Switzerland as a global financial centre.

“[By accepting these proposals], we are giving a clear signal to banking clients both at home and abroad that, here in Switzerland, client confidentiality will continue to be guaranteed,” Kaufmann said.

Opponents, mainly from the centre-left Social Democrats, said setting banking secrecy in stone could hamper Switzerland's foreign policy.

Show of strength?

Stéphane Garelli, an economics professor at the International Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, said parliament’s show of support for banking secrecy was a clear attempt to strengthen Switzerland’s negotiating hand in Brussels.

“It is essentially a political move, because, in private, everyone knows we will have to make some concessions on banking secrecy,” he told swissinfo.

“But I have the feeling that there is also a very strong desire among the public and the business community to make sure that not too much is conceded.”

The Swiss Bankers Association welcomed the parliamentary votes. Spokesman Thomas Sutter described the move as a “good and important signal”.

The Swiss finance minister, Kaspar Villiger, has consistently maintained during talks with EU counterparts that the concept of banking secrecy is non-negotiable.


In brief

Switzerland has come under mounting pressure from the European Union to abandon banking secrecy laws.

The parliamentary vote comes as Switzerland is negotiating a second set of bilateral accords with the EU.

Experts say that while the vote is mostly symbolic, it could put a strain on the bilateral talks.

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