At the G8, Switzerland is the elephant in the room

"The era of bank secrecy is over." Maybe.

Another day, another plea. This time the European Union official in charge of tax policy, Commissioner Algirdas Semeta, has tried to persuade Switzerland to agree to surrender bank data as part of a drive to combat tax evasion.

Semeta’s request echoes several others that Switzerland has received in the past year to sign up for bank data transparency deals.

Countries particularly within the EU are continuously facing a push to sign up for bank data sharing agreements to assist a clamp down on tax debtors, and allow countries to conduct wide-ranging joint multiparty tax investigations. Globally, more than 50 countries have, so far, agreed to automatically exchange tax information.

Prime Minister David Cameron got ten overseas territories and dependencies to sign up for the international protocol on tax disclosure over the weekend – after much ado – and hailed the "landmark" Lough Erne agreement yesterday at the G8 Summit to rewrite global rules to stamp out tax evasion.

Europe’s big five – UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – started piloting the multilateral tax information exchange in April 2013, based on a Model Intergovernmental Agreement to improve international tax compliance and implement FATCA developed between these countries and the US. Austria is expected to join soon as well.

However, the elephant in the room is Switzerland – and its non-commitment to any of these agreements. It is also clear that the support of several other countries is dependent on deals Switzerland strikes.

For instance, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the country would prefer there to first be negotiations with Switzerland, and Luxembourg will decide on its actions accordingly.

Being a $2trn offshore tax haven, Switzerland has a long tradition of bank secrecy that has made it the world's biggest offshore centre.

There is of course a thin line between privacy and secrecy. It’s not wrong to have offshore accounts. Switzerland is, perhaps, taking its sweet time only because it’s protective about its banks and clients.

However, Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said, at the G8 summit on Monday, the Swiss government would probably "only be able to start formal talks with the EU" in the autumn, and would push for global standards on data exchange at the OECD.

Widmer-Schlumpf added that for Switzerland, it is important to engage itself "for a level playing field, not just within the EU but beyond the EU".

The "beyond EU" part is absolutely crucial for Switzerland too.

It’s no secret that Switzerland is under tremendous pressure from the US for bank data as well, what with its oldest private bank, Wegelin& Co pleading guilty to charges of helping wealthy Americans evade taxes through secret accounts earlier in the year, and paying $58 m in fines to US authorities.

Back in 2009, Swiss banking giant UBS was fined $780m and forced to deliver names of more than 4,000 clients to avoid indictment.

On last count, 14 Swiss banks were in US investigators' sights for aiding Americans evade taxes.UBS and Credit Suisse were even named in a wide-spread investigation by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) into offshore tax evasion.

Not that Switzerland is not paying heed. The Swiss government agreed to create a legal basis to enable its banks to settle investigations by US authorities, which could require lenders to pay up to billions of dollars in fines.

But as of yesterday morning, the lower house of parliament stalled the "Lex USA" bid, refusing to address a bill that allows banks to sidestep strict Swiss secrecy laws, even though the upper house of parliament had voted in favour of it, posing another roadblock in the settlement of the long running US-Swiss tax dispute.

Switzerland is clearly the joker in the pack and its movements can either make way for a complete data transparency code among countries, or block it. And it’s moving cautiously.

Semeta said at the G8 meeting on Monday, "It is widely accepted worldwide today that the era of bank secrecy is over." Most will believe it when Switzerland accepts it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Meghna Mukerjee is a reporter at Retail Banker International

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.