Ministers at odds over tax accord "loophole"

Widmer-Schlumpf (left) and Schäuble at the signing cermony last August Keystone

Reports of stolen bank data purchased by German regional authorities have raised questions about an impending tax accord with Switzerland. However, Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf has downplayed the implications.

This content was published on July 19, 2012 minutes

Widmer-Schlumpf and her German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble disagreed over whether the authorities of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia were allowed to “actively acquire” data about suspected tax evaders, fueling negative press on the issue.

The current situation is only temporary, according to the Swiss minister.

“Once the accord is in effect, no one will be interested in buying a CD containing information obtained illegally,” Widmer-Schlumpf told Thursday’s Blick tabloid.

The Blick interview came several days after unconfirmed press reports that North Rhine-Westphalia tax authorities had authorised payment of €3.5 million (SFr4.21 million) for a CD containing information about some 1,000 reputed tax evaders with accounts at the Zurich branch of Coutts private bank.

Quoted by the Neuer Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, Widmer-Schlumpf also said that at the time the accord was signed in August 2011, the German and Swiss governments were in agreement that “actively acquiring” stolen bank data would not be allowed.

However, Germany’s Schäuble released a statement on Monday saying that if the German government were to receive such a CD, there is nothing in the tax agreement forbidding the government from accepting it or from paying for it.

Widmer-Schlumpf countered that Germany’s federal and state governments are both prohibited by the new law from active purchase of information. Buying something “is always active,” she said.

Local opposition

At a federal level, both the Swiss and German governments are committed to the tax agreement, which among other things would impose an income tax of between 21 and 41 per cent on German assets in Swiss banks. The accord has passed through the Swiss parliament but still must be ratified by the German parliament.

On a local level, however, there has been opposition from several German states, and two Swiss organisations are collecting signatures to force a nationwide vote on the issue.

Widmer-Schlumpf  acknowledged that the German federal government’s power over its states may have been overestimated, and that the agreement will not be enforceable in Germany until it has been ratified.

Political tactics may be behind the latest CD purchase, Widmer-Schlumpf implied. North Rhine-Westphalia is one of several states run by the opposition Social Democratic and Green parties, which do not support the tax agreement crafted by the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel.


Coverage of the issue in the German press was negative.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper criticised the German Social Democratic Party of underestimating the damage done.

“It seems that for some time now the SPD is more interested in a row than in being on good terms with its small neighbour [Switzerland]. The SPD is also underestimating the damage done to the sense of justice when the state is happily making business deals with data thieves.”

Stern magazine quoted the conservative Swiss commentator Roger Köppel as saying the fight over banking secrecy is the direct result of the global debt crisis, with governments squeezing more money out of their citizens.

Referring to the reported acquisition of CDs with tax data, Köppel continued:

“Being a great friend of the German rule of law and of Germany’s entrepreneurs, I think it is depressing to see that the state even deals in stolen goods.”

The first CD with stolen tax data from Liechtenstein appeared in Germany in 2006. Four years later, the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony bought several sets of data about German bank account holders in Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Last March, the Swiss justice authorities issued an arrest warrant against three German citizens believed to be involved in the deals.

Tax deals

Switzerland negotiated accords with Germany, Britian and Austria on taxing undeclared offshore assets.

They are scheduled to come into effect at the beginning of January 2013.
The three deals, with slightly different terms, were agreed by the respective governments in March and April.
However, the deals are still subject to approval by the parliaments in Britain and Germany.
They are the the first deals of the kind with EU member states.

Non-EU member Switzerland wants to maintain its banking secrecy rules.

But the 27-nation bloc wants to introduce an automatic exchange of banking data.

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