By Urs Geiser
Swiss banks and the government are facing criticism from the Swiss Abroad Council over alleged discriminatory treatment of expatriates in the United States and Germany.
At its bi-annual meeting in Bern on Saturday, the assembly unanimously adopted a resolution calling for proposals allowing expatriates to keep their taxed assets in Swiss banks.
The move is in response to growing complaints, notably by Swiss expats in the US who were forced to close their accounts at short notice amid pressure by Washington to crack down on tax dodgers.
For expats living in neighbouring Germany, Swiss banks imposed hefty fees or required a minimum investment, apparently to cover high administrative costs to fulfill legal requirements by the government.
The Swiss Abroad Council said the situation for many expats was “unacceptable” and rejected “any form of discrimination based on the country of residence or in the form of high minimum capital investment”.
In his opening address to the more than 130 representatives, the president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, Jacques-Simon Eggly, slammed banks’ policy toward the expat community as “embarrassing”.
Several members vented their frustration and anger at banks and the Swiss government.
While one representative pointed the finger at the “banksters” – in a pun on bankers and gangsters – others accused the authorities of neglecting the Swiss abroad.
“Often enough we are flattered as being ‘ambassadors of Switzerland abroad’, but when it comes to helping us we are given the cold shoulder,” a representative said.
Several speakers condemned the government’s official stance as “scandalous” and refused to accept the role of a “victim of collateral damage” from ongoing tax disputes between Switzerland and several other countries.
During question hour in parliament earlier this month, the government said it had no way of intervening with the Swiss banks as financial institutions were free to accept or turn away clients.
Rejecting criticism of inactivity by the federal administration, Jean-François Lichtenstern, a senior foreign ministry official, told the expatriate assembly on Saturday that the government had intervened with the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA).
Lichtenstern said the president of the association, Claude Alain Margelisch, had accepted a number of recommendations to improve the information policy of its member banks.
However, the SBA had explained that the possibilities of intervention were extremely limited.
The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) says problems with banks are top of the worry list on its internet platform for expats, SwissCommunity.
Sarah Mastantuoni, head of OSA’s legal service, said many banks had failed to respond to questions in a survey of financial institutions’ policies towards Swiss expat customers.
The Federal Price Ombudsman has so far not been willing to examine the high banking fees, according to Mastantuoni.
She added that the problem was continuing and no progress had been made over the past 12 months. The only practical advice to Swiss expatriates she could offer was to consider transferring their money to the Swiss Post’s payment service, PostFinance, as it doesn’t operate as a bank.
In other business, the members of the expat assembly were encouraged to contribute to a petition by the OSA for the swift introduction of electronic voting.
The campaign was launched in January and is to run until mid-August.
The petition will be handed over to Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter at this year’s congress of the Swiss Abroad in Lausanne.
To date, just over 6,200 signatures have been collected mainly over the internet, according to OSA official Barbara Engel.
She said it was crucial to put pressure on the authorities to speed up the ongoing trials with e-voting.
“Not only expatriates stand to benefit from e-voting. For once also citizens in Switzerland could benefit from our effort.”