German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has rarely poured so much energy into anything as he did into his battle against tax evasion. Nearly two years ago at the G-20 summit in Mexico, Mr. Schäuble and his British counterpart, George Osborne, began an initiative to develop a new international standard on automatic exchange of tax information.
This week, Mr. Schäuble will be rewarded for his efforts. Representatives from 95 countries will meet in Berlin to discuss how to increase international cooperation against tax evasion. Thirty finance ministers are expected to attend.
Fifty nations have committed to share information as early as 2017. The agreement, due to be signed Wednesday, will give tax authorities automatic access to financial information and boost the worldwide fight against tax evasion.
It is unusual for an international agreement of this magnitude to be accomplished so quickly. That the signing will take place in Berlin is also an acknowledgment of the effort by Mr. Schäuble, a member of the Christian Democratic Union. It will be one of his greatest moments, even the rival Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) acknowledges.
“It is all good; Germany has taken over a visibly active role,” said Norbert Walter-Borjans, the finance minister of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia and an SPD member. “Despite that, it must be noted that in the beginning, the red-green (SPD-Green parties) governed states were the ones that paved the way for Mr. Schäuble.”
Mr. Schäuble changed tack in 2012 after the SPD blocked a treaty he had negotiated with Switzerland that would have allowed for retroactive taxation of undeclared money held by German citizens in Swiss bank accounts.
Tax havens are becoming increasingly rare, and German tax evaders seem to be getting the message. A record number of around 32,000 voluntary declarations of money banked elsewhere were made in the first three quarters of this year.
Major Swiss banks have been worn down from the battle with the United States, which wanted to prohibit business with Switzerland if it did not abolish banking secrecy for Americans.
One country will be on the sidelines at the signing ceremony: Switzerland. But the Swiss have relented about banking secrecy. They will “deliver a clear commitment to the introduction of the automatic information exchange,” Fabrice Filliez, the representative of the Swiss state secretary for international financial affairs told Handelsblatt.
Swiss officials are set to deliver banking data in 2018. The delay is because the country’s laws take longer to be instituted due to referendum deadlines, and the country did not meet the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s standards about laws for tax transparency in time.
The Swiss have come a long way to get to this point. In March 2008, Hans-Rudolf Merz, the then-Swiss finance minister, said, “It will be very difficult for you to get the banking secrets.”
As an alternative to the information exchange, the Swiss wanted to negotiate bilateral contracts that would introduce an anonymous withholding tax – after piles of compact discs filled with data from secret Swiss bank accounts landed at the German treasury. The contracts existed with Austria and Great Britain. But when the planned agreement for German residents with Swiss bank accounts to pay the withholding tax fell through in negotiations, the concept was dead.
Major Swiss banks have been worn down from the battle with the United States, which wanted to prohibit business with Switzerland if it did not abolish banking secrecy for Americans. In the end, the Swiss gave in.
The OECD placed additional pressure on the country in 2012. Then in 2013, the Swiss did not pass the test on tax-transparency laws in 2013 at the Global Forum for Tax Transparency. The country found itself once again at the level of countries such as Brunei and Liberia.
Now, the Swiss appear about to implement the necessary laws, and the OECD has agreed to a special test for them. The results will first come in February. For now, they will be consigned to a side table at Mr. Schäuble’s show in Berlin.
Holger Alich is Handelsblatt’s Switzerland correspondent. Jan Hildebrand and Donata Riedel report on finance and politics from Handelsblatt Berlin. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com