EU seeks to unleash crackdown on tax evasion

BRUSSELS (AFP) - European finance ministers bid on Tuesday to unlock a trillion-euro annual crackdown on tax evasion, under pressure from EU leaders looking for new measures to boost job creation and growth at their Brussels summit next week.

The meeting is expected to be laborious, with Austrian seeking guarantees before agreeing to the automatic sharing of bank records and amid squabbling over the need for treaty change to fix a seemingly stalled banking union sold as the final fix for the debt crisis.

That and a ticking clock on negotiations over the European Union's shrinking budget and rising unpaid bills, following inconclusive talks convened by EU President Herman Van Rompuy on Monday For once, the finance ministers should be relatively refreshed after exceptionally light eurozone discussions on Monday - notwithstanding increasing concerns over the possible need for a joint bailout of indebted Slovenia.

Lower-level officials slaving away on the mechanics of complex impacts on trillions in deposits, investments and ill-gotten gains, are candid about the determination from their political masters to be able to say they are ensuring tax fairness at a time of stubborn EU recession.

Mr Van Rompuy will attend the ministerial breakfast, in what one diplomat underlined was a demonstration of national leaders' collective will.

The focus of the talks, some of which will be open to the public, will be Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter - who recently likened a long-stalled drive for automatic cross-border sharing of bank records by EU heavyweights to government "snooping."

Her Chancellor Werner Faymann has appeared more inclined to compromise, with a call for international depositors to be subjected to the new rules... but not Austrian citizens.

A key contributor, already on hand for Monday night's Eurogroup talks, despite his recently relinquishing the chairmanship of that grouping, is likely to be Jean-Claude Juncker.

The long-serving prime minister of Luxembourg has proved the other main obstacle to such transparency covering savers agreed by the rest of the EU fully five years ago, but repeatedly filibustered since.

Luxembourg has said it will now ease its banking secrecy restrictions.

Hand-in-hand with the hoped-for breakthrough on EU legislation covering savers is a demand by European Union Taxation Commissioner Algirdas Semeta for a wide-ranging mandate to re-negotiate data access with non-EU offshore neighbours led by finance giant Switzerland.

Neighbouring Liechtenstein may agree to partially automatic exchange of tax-related information, its Prime Minister Adrian Hasler told the German business daily Handelsblatt in an interview on Monday.

"As a small country, it would be unrealistic to say that we fundamentally refuse talks with the EU about an extended exchange of information," and "we are ready to talk," Hasler said.

The big countries driving the move - Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain - say the time is right to implement a European equivalent of a law applied by the United States andthe Group of 20 major international economies.

On Friday at G7 talks in England, ministers including US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew firmed up their commitment to combatting tax evasion, which is illegal, and tax avoidance, which occurs when individuals and companies take advantage of legal loopholes.

British Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, however, can also expect stiff questioning in Brussels, hours from his party's publication of a draft law for an in-out referendum on London's relationship with the EU.

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