Global Policy Forum

Germany Says Stolen Tax Data Won't Harm "Stable" Swiss Ties


By Patrick Donahue

February 01, 2010

Germany said a spat over stolen Swiss tax data won't harm relations between the two neighbors, as Chancellor Angela Merkel's government seeks to avoid a repeat of the insults traded last year over allegations of tax evasion.

The German Finance Ministry is considering whether to buy files on Swiss bank accounts held by German nationals which may enable the government to recoup as much as 200 million euros ($277 million) in lost tax revenue, newspapers including Handelsblatt reported late yesterday.

The sale of details on German holders of Swiss bank accounts comes as Merkel's coalition, in office since October, attempts to repair relations with Switzerland damaged in 2008 and last year when then Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck said the Swiss tax regime encouraged Germans to evade taxes. Blick, the Swiss mass-market newspaper, said Steinbrueck was one of the "most hated people in Switzerland."

"I think relations are so stable, friendly and deep that they won't be affected by what's happened," German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle told ZDF television yesterday.

The incident follows a similar case two years ago, when German authorities opened a tax-evasion probe aimed at hundreds of investors in Liechtenstein, using data purchased from a former employee of LGT Group. Crown Prince Alois, who rules Liechtenstein, called the probe an "attack" on his country.


The Swiss information was drawn primarily from accounts at UBS AG, Handelsblatt reported today. The Financial Times Deutschland said the data came from a Geneva-based private- banking unit of HSBC Holdings Plc. German authorities have been offered information on about 1,300 German holders of Swiss bank accounts for 2.5 million euros, the FTD said.

UBS "is not aware of any such information," spokesman Christoph Meier said yesterday of the Handelsblatt report. "At this point in time this is speculation."

Steffen Poerner, a spokesman for HSBC Trinkaus & Burkhardt AG, the Dusseldorf, Germany-based bank controlled by HSBC, said he couldn't immediately comment on the report. A spokesman for HSBC in Geneva declined to comment when contacted by phone today.

Germany's pursuit of tax havens led to diplomatic tensions. In March last year, Steinbrueck complained of being likened to a "Nazi henchman" after a Swiss lawmaker said Steinbrueck's calls for Switzerland to be placed on a "blacklist" of tax havens reminded him of Germans 60 years ago who wore "leather jackets, boots and an armband."

In May, Steinbrueck listed Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Austria alongside "Ouagadougou," the capital of Burkina Faso, on tax matters. Switzerland and Germany since began talks on a revised double-taxation agreement to facilitate exchange of information on account holders.

Swiss Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz said in November that Merkel's new coalition after Sept. 27 elections was working to restore friendly relations. Steinbrueck's successor as finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, is "respectful, full of experience, knowledge and empathy," Merz was cited as saying in Die Zeit. "That is good for mutual relations."


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