With international banking secrecy on the verge of being wiped out, pressure is mounting to give Swiss tax authorities the power to force banks to hand over data in cases of suspected tax evasion by Swiss citizens.
Although the government has bowed to international pressure and committed to the automatic exchange of information with foreign tax authorities from 2017, the Swiss still have the option of keeping their bank account information secret from the Swiss tax office.
“Foreign tax authorities can access any and all information concerning their citizens from Swiss tax authorities, while these same authorities remain bound and gagged in the face of their own tax evaders,” says Jean-Christian Lambelet, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Lausanne. “It’s obvious that this two-speed system is not tenable.”
Lambelet’s opinion is widely shared by banking and finance experts canvassed by swissinfo.ch.
“It’s just a question of time. Banking secrecy is obsolete, it wronged us. To keep it uniquely for the Swiss would send the wrong signal to the rest of the world,” says finance consultant Daniel Spitz.
Aware of the problem, finance minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf has been trying since 2010 to inject more transparency into Switzerland’s taxation system. Notably, criminal tax law has been revised to allow for severe penalties for tax offences, including for tax evasion – defined in Switzerland as “forgetting” to declare revenues or fortunes.
Convincing the Swiss
Chasing down tax evaders would enable the government to compensate in part for lost revenue due to the Corporate Tax Reform III that will end tax privileges for foreign multinationals.
For the cantons, a number of which are experiencing budget difficulties, chasing tax dodgers could deliver a much-needed boost to the state finances.
“It’s essential that the tax office is given more powers so that it can investigate suspected cases of fraud,” says Georges Godel, finance minister for canton Fribourg.
But resistance is fierce. Having received a drubbing during the consultation process, the government has already backed down on some key issues. The final proposal, which will be delivered at the end of 2015, will not authorise the cantons to gain access easily to the banking data of people suspected of hiding their revenue.