By Urs Geiser
The Swiss government has agreed in principle on extending due diligence requirements of banks and improved legal assistance on tax matters with other countries.
The finance ministry has been mandated to prepare concrete measures by next September in a bid to strengthen Switzerland’s financial centre, which is facing sustained pressure by several countries, including the United States.
Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the report discussed in Wednesday’s regular cabinet meeting was designed to outline the strategy for a “credible, tax compliant and competitive Swiss financial centre.”
She said the aim is to settle past tax problems with individual countries through amended deals and a withholding tax to ensure that investment income and capital gains of Swiss bank clients living abroad are taxed in line with international regulations.
Widmer-Schlumpf said the cabinet agreed on three tenets, including upgrading due diligence rules to prevent banks accepting untaxed assets. Besides these additional duties for banks, their clients would also be required to make a declaration on the fulfilment of their tax obligations in their home countries.
“We are convinced that this strategy allows us to live up to a legitimate demand of bank clients for privacy and to the equally legitimate demands of foreign countries to tax their citizens,” she told a news conference.
Widmer-Schlumpf said the cabinet continued to refuse the adoption of an automatic exchange of information, notably demanded by the European Union.
“The government believes that an automatic exchange of information would not be efficient and would contradict our policy of protecting the privacy of bank clients.”
Widmer-Schlumpf said the strategy report, which was delayed in November, was not directly linked to a scheduled debate in parliament next week over an amended tax accord with Washington.
If the House of Representatives follow the Senate, legal assistance will be granted to US authorities investigating suspected tax dodgers even if the bank client is not named but based only on evidence of on certain “patterns of behaviour”.
But she added that a smooth passage of the bill next week was in the government’s interest.
At least 11 Swiss banks are under investigation by Washington in the wake of a 2009 accord to transfer data concerning around 4,500 US bank clients suspected of violating US tax laws. The move was designed to stave off a potentially disastrous legal action against Switzerland’s main commercial bank, UBS.
But it also chipped away at Switzerland’s tradition of banking secrecy, which helped build up a $2 trillion offshore wealth management industry.
Approval of tax deals is also pending with neighbouring Germany and Britain.
Wednesday’s government policy statement met mixed reaction from political parties.
The centre-left Social Democrats said they welcomed the cabinet policy of “cleaning up the financial centre”, force banks to adopt a clean money strategy and reject untaxed money. However, it called on the cabinet to “let action speak now.”
The centre-right Radical Party, traditionally close to business interests, praised the government for taking more time to present concrete measures and refusing to cave in to pressure from the left.
However, the non-governmental organisation Berne Declaration, which works for equitable relations between the industrialised world and developing countries, slammed the strategy as mere window dressing for a domestic audience.