European finance ministers remain divided on how to tackle tax havens
Europe's biggest countries gained ground Saturday in their bid to recover some of the one trillion euros lost each year to tax fraud and money laundering, despite hold-out Austria railing against government "snooping" into bank accounts.
After a first day of talks among finance ministers focused on eurozone bailout issues, European Union Tax Commissioner Algirdas Semeta said he expected a breakthrough on the automatic sharing of customer bank data across borders "within weeks."
Cash-strapped governments want to claw back much-needed revenues at a time of recession and high unemployment, with the issue to top a May 22 summit of EU leaders.
Semeta said the first fruits should be agreement on a legal update covering savings taxation that has been stalled since 2008, plus a mandate to negotiate with Switzerland and other third parties on the exchange of bank account information.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble echoed those remarks after the talks ended, stressing his belief that "all member states will participate in the automatic exchange of information" before too long.
Schaeuble had appeared late Friday alongside his counterparts from Britain, France, Italy, Poland and Spain, each arguing that citizens demand "fairness" when it comes to tax, especially in tough times.
The EU has been tightening up on tax evasion and money laundering since the 2008 global financial crisis highlighted the problem alongside the reckless speculative fever that drove banks and countries into a ditch.
Luxembourg had held out with Austria, repeatedly blocking legislative changes, but last week it indicated a readiness to lift some barriers in 2015.
Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter insisted in Dublin that individual privacy is paramount, although her chancellor, a political rival ahead of September polls, took a softer stance earlier in the week to suggest there was at least some room for negotiation.
Changing tax law across the EU requires all member states to give their approval, without exception.
Fekter said the drive was simply governments "snooping," arguing that the automatic exchange of information with EU peers was "not necessary" because of a withholding tax Austria implements and which is subject to tax treaty controls with dozens of countries including the EU's biggest.
Vienna passes taxes taken at source on to foreign governments -- although anonymously -- which Fekter argued, delivers "more money, and faster."
She vowed: "We will fight (to retain) banking secrecy. I owe that to the Austrians."
Backers of the plan, wanting to match the United States, said they aim to push the cause next week at meetings of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Group of 20 major economies.
"This fight, this is not only national, a European fight -- but a fight at the global level," French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said late Friday.
"Our message to those who try to evade taxes is this: places where you can hide are getting smaller and smaller," his British counterpart George Osborne said.
"We know that behind these (money) flows, lie mafia networks," said EU Markets Commissioner Michel Barnier at the talks' closing press conference on Saturday.
France has threatened to blacklist Austria but Vienna in turn pointed an accusing finger at British-dependent territories like the Channel Islands or the Cayman Islands.
In response, a British official said that the Crown Dependencies in Europe -- offshore tax havens in Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and Gibraltar -- each exchange more tax records with the UK than Austria.
Arms-length Overseas Territories such as the Cayman or Virgin Islands have refused to sign up to the same regime but the British official said the authorities were trying to get them to agree.
Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan, in the EU chair until end-June, said he wanted "action at an early date."
Noonan rejected any idea that the sudden impetus for the push had come from an ongoing tax fraud scandal in France which forced the resignation of Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac after he disclosed, following repeated denials, that he held a bank account overseas.