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European Union

The EU's six biggest nations team up to fight tax havens

Finance ministers from the European Union's six biggest nations have agreed to fight together against tax havens. The move is seen as an attempt to persuade Austria to change its strict banking secrecy laws.

At a joint press conference in Dublin Friday, finance ministers from Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain and Poland announced their intentions to boost bank transparency within Europe and beyond.

"Nobody can deny that bank secrecy is outdated, that we need an efficient system to tackle evasion strategies," French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici told reporters as he stood alongside his counterparts from the other countries. "Our mission is to create momentum. When these six major capitals of Europe move together, it creates a strong signal which nobody can resist."

The ministers' news conference followed EU President Herman Van Rompuy's announcement that the issue of tax evasion would be on the agenda for the next summit of EU leaders in May.

"Tax evasion is unfair to citizens who work hard and pay their share of taxes for society to work," said Rompuy, who added that one trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) are lost annually in tax evasion and avoidance. "It is unfair to companies who pay their taxes but find it hard to compete because others don't."

The finance ministers said their fight to combat tax evasion would also extend beyond the EU.

"This fight, this is not only national, a European fight – but a fight at the global level," Moscovici said.

"Our message to those who try to evade taxes is this: places where you can hide are getting smaller and smaller," Britain's George Osborne added.

Austria stands firm

Maria Fekter, Austria's finance minister, called the push for new standards simply "government snooping." Austria is seen as the last holdout on banking secrecy after Luxembourg announced it would inform other EU countries starting in 2015 about interest earned by their residents.

Fekter said Austria would "stick to" the constitutionally-guaranteed protection of privacy for deposit holders, calling automatic sharing of account data "a massive intrusion of privacy."

The EU should focus its efforts on British territories in the Caribbean and elsewhere, Fekter said, including the Cayman Islands, the Virgin Islands, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar – places she called "the real hot spots for money laundering and tax evasion."

Austria's opposition puts it at odds with other EU nations as the bloc's 27 ministers prepare to begin discussions on the issue in full on Saturday.

Fekter has promised to "fight like a lion" to keep her country's strict banking secrecy laws, while her German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble has campaigned against the policy.

"Every country is independent in its own tax policy but this also means they should abstain from preventing other countries to legally tax their own citizens," Schäuble told reporters.

dr/ch (AFP, dpa, Reuters)