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
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.