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Politics

Switzerland hints at new tax deal as Gauck lambasts evaders

The Swiss foreign minister has hinted at fresh talks with Germany on a bilateral tax deal, after an earlier effort was blocked. Meanwhile, the presidents of Germany and Bayern Munich have been talking tax evasion.

Shortly before a meeting with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter told the mass-circulation Bild daily paper that his government would consider fresh talks on a bilateral tax deal.

"If Germany, after its rejection [of a previous arrangement], wants to seek a discussion with us, then we're open," Burkhalter told Bild. "The current situation with random discoveries and the legally questionable CD purchases is unsatisfactory for both sides."

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government had reached a deal with the administration in Bern, a plan that was ratified in Switzerland. Last December, however, the opposition-controlled Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, shot down the deal, saying it wasn't good enough.

State governments, most recently in the Social Democrat and Green-controlled Rhineland-Palatinate in April this year, have since continued purchasing under-the-table CDs with data on Germans harboring assets in Swiss banks; Bern has often criticized this method as illegal.

With April's "Offshore Leaks" publication of data on as many as 130,000 possible tax evaders and then the shock confession from the president of Bayern Munich football club, Uli Hoeness, the already-contentious issue has been thrown into the political spotlight in an election year in Germany.

Two presidents talk tax evasion

German President Joachim Gauck, now an apolitical head of state but hailing from the left side of the aisle, weighed in on the issue in an interview with magazine Stern, with excerpts published ahead of it hitting the newsstands on Thursday.

"Anyone who evades taxes is behaving irresponsible or even anti-socially," Gauck told Stern. "There cannot be legal or moral double standards in our country, one set for the strong and another for the weak."

Gauck also called on politicians to consider "whether stronger laws are necessary that would turn a questionable activity into a criminal one."

Under current German law, a model that several opposition politicians would like to change, people can pay back-taxes - plus interest - to correct past tax avoidance, thus avoiding criminal culpability and retaining their anonymity. There are several conditions that must be met to qualify for this partial amnesty, most crucially that they turn themselves in rather than waiting for prosecutors to find out.

Bayern Munich President Uli Hoeness has famously submitted such an amended tax return, a move first published late in April, in a Focus report quoting both public prosecutors and Hoeness. The football legend's high-profile case gave fresh impetus to the tax debate.

"This is a really big problem for me," Hoeness told this week's edition of newspaper die Zeit. "I feel as if I have been catapulted onto the other side of society in recent days, like I no longer belong. I am of course hugely disappointed in myself. In the mornings I'm sometimes completely exhausted just an hour after getting out of bed."

Chancellor Angela Merkel was said to be "very disappointed" in the Bayern Munich favorite, a frequent advocate of social responsibility and a generous charitable donator, and Hoeness told Zeit "I would like at some point to get the opportunity to talk to the German chancellor and explain to her how this went so far: this whole mess."

msh/hc (AFP, dpa, Reuters)