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Widmer-Schlumpf talks up Swiss tax achievements in 2013

Talk about having a lot to deal with. If one finance minister was at the centre of most of the controversial tax issues in 2013, mainly to do with the exchange of tax information, it was Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf of Switzerland.

Eveline Widmer-SchlumpfFrom January 16, when the Federal Council decided to enact the Tax Administrative Assistance Act dealing with administrative assistance under double taxation agreements, up to November 29, when the council announced enhanced due diligence that Swiss banks have to follow to ensure they do not accept untaxed assets, and also gave authorisation to the first Swiss banks to cooperate with the US to settle their tax disputeWidmer-Schlumpf and the Federal Department of Finance have had to deal with a range of issues under the intense gaze of the rest of the world.

In an exclusive interview with International Tax Review, Widmer-Schlumpf (right), a member of the Global Tax 50, talks about the issues she has had to deal with this year.

What have been the most difficult and easiest issues for you to deal with this year?
In the case of dossiers with an international reach, which your question was probably referring to, the major challenge is that we want to solve problems with our foreign partners and also have to convince the main decision-makers at home, especially parliament of course, of the merits of such solutions. This is not always easy, particularly in the case of items concerning tax compliance and the competitiveness of Switzerland's financial centre.

Switzerland is a direct democracy – this means not only that the government has to achieve a majority in both chambers of parliament but also that there is the possibility of a project having to be put forward for adoption by a popular vote. This obliges us to find solutions that are as balanced as possible and comprehensible for all citizens when conducting negotiations in the international arena. Consequently, we always have to make it clear to our overseas partners that reforms cannot be made at the stroke of a pen in our democracy and that a prolonged decision-making process is required before they can be implemented. While it may appear interminable for outsiders, this way of doing things guarantees stability and legal certainty, which is appreciated not only by players in the Swiss financial centre but also by our partners abroad.

Where do you think you have been able to have the most impact?
It is not for me to assess my political impact. In general, however, it can be said that quite a bit has been achieved by Switzerland with its commitment to framework conditions that ensure our financial centre's quality, stability and integrity. We were able to bring our position to bear at the meetings of the G20 finance ministers. The dialogue with the EU is also proceeding. Regarding the United States, we have managed to conclude the FATCA agreement as well as make progress on resolving the tax dispute.

Moreover, important preliminary decisions have been made in the area of tax administrative assistance in order for Switzerland to comply with international standards. In this regard, the signing of the OECD/Council of Europe Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters is worthy of mention too. Adoption of the revised recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is also part of our strategy for a morally sound and successful financial centre.

Switzerland has faced a lot of criticism over its approach to issues such as exchange of information and secrecy. Has it been difficult to do your job in those circumstances?
Whoever criticises us also has to bear in mind the great number of reforms Switzerland has implemented in recent years. Our financial integrity strategy has meanwhile become broadly accepted and is rated positively abroad too. Switzerland is willing to cooperate actively, within the framework of the OECD, on the development of a global standard for the automatic exchange of information. Such a standard should apply for all financial centres and also cover trusts in Anglo-Saxon countries.

What are the department’s priorities for 2014?
Aside from the further development of the financial centre strategy, which the group of experts appointed by the Federal Council is currently working on, there are two main challenges in my view.

The first one is to give democratic legitimacy at national level to several solutions that we have discussed with our foreign partners. Examples include the new provisions for tax administrative assistance and the aforementioned OECD/Council of Europe Convention, which we have to submit to parliament.

The second challenge concerns the issue of what should happen with any untaxed assets that have been held in Swiss banks for a long time. The Federal Council is prepared to seek a fair arrangement for the past with the most important partner states to enable untaxed legacy assets to be regularised.

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