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: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.