Taxing time for Swiss diplomats
The annual gathering of Swiss ambassadors has been overshadowed by discontent among the diplomats who feel their salaries are being taxed unfairly.
Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey told the 150 ambassadors, consuls general and development agency heads that she understood their concerns.
Each year, the diplomats return to Switzerland to attend the three-day meeting. It's an opportunity for the foreign minister to outline government policy.
The official focus of this year's conference was on efforts to increase coordination within the foreign ministry.
But observers said the tax issue got in the way. Since the start of the year, the authorities in canton Bern introduced a general tax reform that has had a negative and costly side effect for Swiss diplomats.
About 70 representatives wrote a letter of protest to Calmy-Rey last May. According to the association representing government employees, expenses incurred during business trips now appear as income and are therefore subject to taxation, as are premiums paid for deployment to dangerous locations or to cover the school fees of the children of diplomats.
The association said this was the final straw that broke the camel's back. Since 1991, federal employees have not seen a real rise in salaries and a change to their pension fund has led to cuts.
"It's true that this is a problem that particularly affects government representatives posted abroad," foreign ministry spokesman, Jean-Philippe Jeannerat, admitted. "They receive several different allowances to cover expenses and other costs."
Reports in some newspapers claimed the diplomats would now have to pay triple the amount of taxes.
"There will be increases of up to 50 per cent of the total amount and in some cases where it could be even higher, but these are the exception," Jeannerat explained, adding that most affected would be Swiss representatives abroad with medium or lower wages.
"There is no simple solution. We are dealing with the implacable logic of the fiscal authorities," Calmy-Rey said in her address to open the conference on Monday, aware that the services provided by her ministry "must be adapted to the current tax regime".
The foreign minister said she would set up a working group to discuss the issue with officials in the finance ministry and other federal offices.
But the final decision will be taken by the cabinet, and if necessary parliament. "The battle is not yet won," she warned, promising however to find a satisfactory solution.
swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez
The traditional four-day gathering of high-level Swiss diplomats in Bern brought together ambassadors, consuls general and heads of cooperation from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) from August 27-30.
This year's conference focused on efforts to increase coordination within the foreign ministry. The theme of the conference was 'Switzerland – a country that speaks out and acts'.
Among the participants was Carla Del Ponte, who will step down as chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague to take up the post of Swiss ambassador to Argentina at the beginning of next year.
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