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Euro States Set to Disclose Tax Details

City of Luxembourg
Richard Elliott | Stone | Getty Images
City of Luxembourg

Austria and Luxembourg are preparing to ease longstanding and controversial bank secrecy rules, allowing other EU member states access to their depositors' account details amid mounting pressure to crack down on tax evasion in Europe.

Tax havens have come under increasing scrutiny after millions of bank records were leaked last week exposing the identities of thousands of tax cheats around the world.

It also follows the explosive admission by Jérôme Cahuzac, until last month France's budget minister, that he had lied about holding a secret bank account in Switzerland, a revelation that has damaged François Hollande's presidency.

(Read More: France's Hollande Hits Companies With 75% Wealth Tax)

Werner Faymann, Austria's chancellor, said on Tuesday the country was ready to talk about providing details on EU citizens with offshore accounts in the country, although he insisted details about Austrian depositors would remain private.

"We are prepared to negotiate about automatic data-exchange concerning the accounts of foreigners in Austria that has been requested by the EU," he said.

Until now, he said, Austria had provided data only when there was evidence of wrongdoing. "That is too little. We need to act faster and more aggressively in the fight against tax fraud."

(Read More: New EU Law Could Include Tax on Uninsured Deposits)

Meanwhile, Luc Frieden, Luxembourg's finance minister, said the EU's second smallest state would discuss easing banking secrecy rules and enhancing co-operation with other EU tax authorities to fight evasion. Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in London, Mr. Frieden told reporters that plans to share details of Luxembourg-based depositors were "under consideration" by the government.

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Over the weekend he said that the Grand Duchy "no longer strictly rejects" easing banking secrecy rules. "Luxembourg does not rely on clients who want to save tax," he said in an interview with Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

Austria and Luxembourg are the only countries among the bloc's 27 member states that have refused automatic exchange of information about depositors. They are now seeking to protect the reputation of their financial service sectors by indicating their willingness to be more open over depositor information.

"I very much welcome Luxembourg's new openness to automatic exchange of information, even if it is long overdue," said Algirdas Šemeta, EU commissioner for taxation.

The moves come as Europe's five largest economies reached an agreement on Tuesday to further strengthen co-operation over fighting tax evasion. The UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain will expand information exchange, which is currently limited to deposits, to a broader range of financial transactions.

(Read More: Italy's Record Tax Haul Helps Cut Deficit)

Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany's finance minister, said on Tuesday that agreement on common EU standards for data exchange to curb tax evasion would be an "important theme" at the spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington.

However, he added, it was taking a long time to negotiate. "It is sometimes very heavy going," he said after a meeting with Jack Lew, the new U.S. Treasury Secretary.

Mr. Lew said both the U.S. and Germany had a common interest in ensuring transparency and making sure that tax laws were obeyed. In curbing the use of tax havens "we have a common interest in making sure we have a level playing field", he said.

(Read More: France Told to Cap Proposed Super Tax at 66 Percent)

It remains unclear, however, to what extent the Austria and Luxembourg are willing to open access to depositors' account details.

Maria Fekter, Austria's finance minister who hails from the center-right People's party, said on Sunday she would "fight like a lion" to preserve bank secrecy rules. "In our constitution, privacy and data protection get very high priority," she said.

Meanwhile, Luxembourg's finance ministry stressed that the discussion over banking secrecy did not mean that the rules would be automatically eased.

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