The World from Berlin: 'Isolation is No Longer an Option for Switzerland'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said her government might pay a hefty sum -- again -- for stolen banking details on potential German tax cheats. Her attitude has riled the Swiss, who consider private banking to be a sacred business tradition.

Angela Merkel, left, believes stolen bank information is still good information. Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, agrees. Zoom
dpa

Angela Merkel, left, believes stolen bank information is still good information. Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, agrees.

A quick way to make money in Europe these days is to work for a secretive Alpine bank and bring home a packed with private account details of wealthy Germans. A man from Liechtenstein sold discs like that to the German government in 2007 for about €5 million ($6.9 million dollars), and by the end of 2009 Berlin had parlayed its investment into some €180 million -- in belatedly paid back taxes.

Now another informant has offered a disc with Swiss banking details to the German government for around €2.5 million. The data may relate to money held by 1,500 Germans dodging taxes in Switzerland's famously hermetic banks. On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said it would not be wrong, in principle, for her government to shell out money again for such information. "If this data is relevant, it must be our objective to acquire it," she told a press conference in Berlin. Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, agrees, saying no principles have shifted since the Liechtenstein affair. "The government does not make new decisions in such difficult matters once every year and a half," he said.

But the German position has rattled cages in Switzerland, where political leaders see banking secrecy as sacrosanct. Swiss Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz maintains that buying stolen information is itself a crime. "What Germany is doing here is illegal in Switzerland," he told a German paper on Monday, raising the specter of once again crumbling diplomatic relations between Germany and Switzerland, which is not a European Union member.

A Social Democratic member of the Swiss parliament, Mario Fehr, said Monday that Germany would be "a receiver of stolen goods" if it bought the data. "This is not the level at which civilized states interact." And Thomas Sutter, of the Swiss Bankers Association, sounded even angrier. "It is our hope that Germany will not purchase this data, and will instead arrest the criminals who have committed a crime in Switzerland, and then return the data to Switzerland."

German papers on Tuesday largely line up against the Swiss -- with one odd exception. Most commentators north of the Alps appear to believe that the days of the numbered Swiss account are, well, numbered.

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Legally we can look at the purchase of these data by the state as a kind of reward offer, similar to rewards for information that lead to the arrest of certain criminals -- which other criminals, of course, may benefit from. Konrad Freiberg, head of the (German) police union, has suggested this argument."

"What's especially hypocritical is the charge that the state will turn itself into a 'receiver of stolen goods' by purchasing the data. Back taxes obtainable by the state amount to nothing more than money that belongs in the German national budget. It's the Swiss banks -- supported by Swiss political practice -- that may have turned themselves into accessories to tax evasion. So if the debate is about 'receiving stolen goods,' perhaps the German government has the right address."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Suppose this potentially 'platinum' CD really is packed with data belonging to German tax cheats, to the tune of billions of euros hidden in Swiss banks. No finance minister in a heavily indebted industrial nation could simply let that lie. It's no different for Germany than it would be for France, Italy or the United States -- all countries that have a bone to pick with Switzerland over taxes."

"Isolation is no longer an option for Switzerland, as an open and export-dependent country. International concerns grasp this more quickly than the politicians in Bern. For just that reason the managers of trans-national corporations will want to put an end to these tax controversies sooner rather than later. But it will work only if Swiss politicians normalize relations with Europe. Only then can the Swiss be taken seriously beyond the Alps and thus win back some influence over the fate of their own country. Whether that's possible without joining the EU is a question those politicians will have to settle for themselves."

The Financial Times Deutschland resorts to quoting pop songs:

"Who wouldn't want to have a CD just lying around the house, containing a lot of restricted data which could bring them a million euros or two? Don't worry: You too can make a tax-dodger CD, and without expending much criminal energy."

"But you have to be careful about your choice of data. Abba's song 'Money, Money, Money' would be too obvious. 'Money for Nothing' might be better. Better still: The song 'Don't Pay the Ferryman' by Chris de Burgh, because of the line, 'There is trouble ahead, so you must pay me now. Don't do it!"

"Younger readers might go for Nine Inch Nails: 'You give me the anger. You give me the nerve. Carry out my sentence. While I get what I deserve.'"

For readers who prefer less English, there's always Heinz Rudolf Kunze (who sings in German): 'Betrayed, sold out, sold out and betrayed / Every day it gets harder, even though my data's secure…'"

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Switzerland has long struggled with an identity crisis. Its self-image as a diligent neutral nation which does nothing but good and remains aloof has, since the end of the '80s, been falling apart. The first cracks showed during scandals over bank accounts belonging to Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. The lesson from those days was that even Switzerland has guilt to bear from World War II. In 2001, the collapse of Swissair exposed the sleaze in Swiss business practices and the fallibility of Swiss managers. Now we have these controversies over bank secrecy -- which amount to a stubborn, ugly tax war waged against the rest of the world."

"There's debate in Switzerland over the damage caused by its tradition of bank privacy. The tradition has staunch defenders among conservative politicians and in the banks. But demands are growing louder -- not just from the left, but also among populist politicians -- that Switzerland should end it domestically. Such a move would mean holding accountable those bankers who encouraged foreign tax evaders. Only the government in Bern has failed to read the writing on the wall."

-- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff

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