Top Swiss negotiator resigns

Ambühl is leaving his post to become a professor at Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology Keystone

Michael Ambühl, Switzerland’s top diplomat in ongoing tax and banking negotiations with both the United States and countries in Europe, will step down at the end of August, it has been announced.

This content was published on May 24, 2013 - 15:09 and agencies

The 62-year-old career diplomat, who has held the position of state secretary for international financial matters since 2010, will take up a job in September at Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) as professor of negotiation and conflict management, the finance ministry said in a statement on Friday.

The news comes at a key point in negotiations with the US and the European Union (EU) over taxes.

Ambühl has been leading lengthy talks with the US to strike a deal that would end tax investigations into numerous Swiss banks, including Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, suspected of helping wealthy Americans evade taxes. Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said last Saturday that a deal seemed in sight, but Swiss media have reported that it could be extremely costly for the banks.

The veteran diplomat was also extremely active in negotiations with the EU. He was recently involved in negotiations over changes to Switzerland's corporate tax laws, as the country comes under pressure to abolish special tax breaks on foreign profits. Last year, he secured witholding tax deals with Britain and Austria.

The finance ministry statement said Widmer-Schlumpf “took note of this decision with regret” but nontheless understood that Ambühl wanted “to take up a new challenge”.

Via Twitter, the Swiss Bankers’ Association also expressed regret over Ambühl’s departure, citing his contributions to the sector.

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And, also through Twitter, Christian Levrat, president of the centre-left Social Democratic Party, expressed that Ambühl, “captain of a sinking ship, leaves the bridge before people notice his strategy was the wrong one”. 

Christophe Darbellay, president of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party, felt that the timing of Ambühl's announcement was extremely tricky.

"It's not going to strengthen Switzerland's position to learn that their chief negotiator is on his way out," he told the Swiss News Agency.

Recent tensions

Swiss media have also reported tensions between Ambühl and Widmer-Schlumpf in recent weeks and criticism of Ambühl’s handling of the banking talks with the US.

Ambühl was a top negotiator for the foreign ministry from 2005 until 2010, when he was assigned to defend the country’s battered financial sector from increasing international political pressure.

The diplomat from canton Bern led a team of 40 experts at the newly created State Secretariat for International Financial and Tax Matters, effectively the number-two man in the finance ministry.

Observers welcomed his appointment at the time as “a change in the mindset” within the government, which has in the past been criticised for its wait-and-see response to serious financial problems and defence of banking secrecy.

Ambühl brought with him an extensive knowledge of financial matters and was regarded as the architect of a set of key bilateral agreements with the EU negotiated in the first half of the decade.

He also played central roles in critical issues ranging from the US government’s pursuit of bank UBS to Swiss mediation efforts in Iran’s nuclear stalemate. His previous diplomatic postings include Kinshasa, New Delhi and Brussels.

Ambühl studied management science and applied mathematics at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He has a doctorate in technical sciences.

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