May 14 - European Union finance ministers have been given the green light to start talks with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and three other countries on new rules for swapping bank account information. As Sonia Legg reports it's a move that's likely to be popular with Europe's cash-strapped voters.
Small, beautiful and wealthy - Switzerland has long been associated with secret finances. The tiny European country has never been inclined to join in - staying out of World War Two and keeping its own currency even when those around it adopted the euro. But things are about to change - at least when it comes to ending bank secrecy for foreigners. The European Commission is about to get the green light to negotiate a new regime for swapping bank account details with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and three other countries. Austria has made that possible by finally dropping their objections to the so-called EU savings tax directive. Finance Minister Maria Fekter. (SOUNDBITE) (German) AUSTRIAN FINANCE MINISTER MARIA FEKTER, SAYING "The Commission has made it clear that our bilateral agreements with Switzerland and Liechtenstein will be valid as before, and we can continue our system of withholding tax. Therefore, we found an agreement on the three conditions the Austrian government had." Austria too has long fought to preserve bank secrecy. This softened stance suggests it may also now follow Luxembourg's recent decision to sign up to the new EU rules. France, among others, welcomed the development. Tax evasion is a major issue, says Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici. (SOUNDBITE) (English) FRENCH FINANCE MINISTER, PIERRE MOSCOVICI, SAYING: "The citizens can't stand some behaviours of fiscal evasion, because we also need some money in order to reduce our deficit. It's a question of ethics, as well as a question of economic interest. And we can see that today, this fraudulent behaviour are not anymore stood by our citizens and we must act on this point." An automatic exchange of information will allow tax authorities to spot evaders and illegal transactions far more easily. It's not going to solve anyone's debt problems. But it will be popular with taxpayers - and that can't be said about many decisions made these days by Europe's finance ministers. /////