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Austrian banking secrecy under pressure

30 januari 2014

Austria’s banking secrecy has deep traditional roots. This means that banks protect their clients’ data in accordance with statutory regulations. Nonetheless, various reports were published in the media at the beginning of 2013 saying that Austria had consented to lifting its banking secrecy. The United States reportedly put enormous pressure on the Austrian government by threatening that in the future Austrian banks would not be allowed to do business in the United States if they failed to cooperate with the automatic exchange of information. Former State Secretary of Finance Weekers later said he anticipated that automatic information exchange would be the norm in EU countries with effect from 2015.

The EU Ministers of Finance met in Brussels at the end of 2013. Despite Austria’s earlier assent, no agreement was reached during this meeting to switch to automatic information exchange for the whole of Europe. Several sources revealed that Austria and Luxembourg, among others, frustrated the decision-making.

As a result of these deadlocked negotiations, parliamentary questions were submitted on whether or not to abolish banking secrecy in the European Union. Weekers states that the question is not whether or not banking secrecy will be abolished but when this will occur (Letter from the State Secretary of Finance, 17 December 2013, no. AFP/2013/871. ‘It is important to Luxembourg and Austria that they have a level playing field with their Swiss competitor. If Switzerland lifts their banking secrecy, it will be easier for Luxembourg and Austria to follow suit.’ There is no doubt that the Swiss banking secrecy is under pressure (read in Dutch: ‘Het bankgeheim ontrafeld’). According to Weekers it is only a matter of time before banking secrecy is completely abolished within the European Union.

Weekers temporarily relaxed the voluntary disclosure scheme on 2 September 2013. Easing the rules means that the fine of 30% will not be imposed if those with undeclared savings report to the Tax Authorities before 1 July 2014. This relaxation also applies to voluntary disclosures submitted before 2 September 2013 for which the fine ruling has not become final. Given that there is no automatic information exchange between Austria and the Netherlands, Dutch taxpayers with undeclared assets in Austria may still benefit from the temporary easing of the voluntary disclosure scheme.

More on voluntary disclosure, the scheme, and the procedure