BUSINESS

Swiss kickstart talks with U.S. to settle tax probe

08/26/2011 11:18 am ET | Updated Oct 26, 2011

By Emma Thomasson

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland has made a proposal to try to kickstart talks to settle its impasse with U.S. authorities over Swiss banks suspected of helping wealthy Americans dodge taxes, its finance minister said.

"We have presented a discussion framework (to the U.S.)," Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told reporters on the sidelines of a conference on Friday. "We will try to solve it so that we do not get any more difficulties."

Widmer-Schlumpf said the proposal was an attempt to settle the dispute under the auspices of a new bilateral taxation agreement which the Swiss parliament approved in September 2009 and the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify.

She declined to give any timetable for the negotiations, which a spokesman would only say were proceeding.

Strict bank secrecy has helped Switzerland build up a $2 trillion offshore financial industry, but the country has agreed in recent years to do more to help hunt tax cheats amid a global crackdown on tax havens.

The United States is pushing for Switzerland to hand over thousands more bank client names as it did last year when it allowed UBS <UBSN.VX> to bend bank secrecy and reveal the details of around 4,450 clients to avoid criminal charges.

Since settling with UBS, the U.S. authorities have been investigating other Swiss banks, ratcheting up the pressure last month by telling Credit Suisse <CSGN.VX> it is a target of its probe and indicting a string of Swiss bankers.

Switzerland has been trying to reach a deal to get the investigation dropped in return for the banks paying a fine and handing over a limited number of client names.

Switzerland is keen to find a solution that would not need approval from parliament, seen as likely to block any new breach of bank secrecy for Credit Suisse after only reluctantly agreeing to the UBS treaty under emergency law last year.

However, the United States is seen pushing for a repeat of the UBS deal as that would not face the risk that bank clients could challenge their details being revealed in the Swiss courts by appealing to secrecy laws.

In unusually blunt comments, President Micheline Calmy-Rey said on Monday Switzerland would not accept attempts by the U.S. to tell it what legal procedures it should use to transfer bank data.

And in a letter to the New York Times on Tuesday, Swiss ambassador Manuel Sager rejected suggestions that Switzerland was fighting against handing over bank information.

"Switzerland is determined to be a leading global financial center for clean money. Untaxed money has no place in Switzerland," he wrote. "Switzerland has made a constructive offer; it needs only to be used."

On Wednesday, Switzerland and Britain struck a deal to tax money kept by British residents in secret accounts, mirroring one agreed with Germany earlier this month that brought to an end a bitter dispute over cross-border tax dodging.

(Editing by Mike Nesbit)

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