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Monaco Backs Off Bank Secrecy

Monaco succumbed to international pressure over the weekend, becoming the latest country to adopt international standards for banking openness and information-sharing at a time when the United States and its European allies in battling tax evaders face what could be years of negotiations before they are able to proclaim victory.

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“There’s been dramatic progress,” Angel Gurría, the secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said by telephone Sunday.

While the organization has been working since 1996 to encourage greater openness in banking, he said, “there is a new atmosphere,” partly because the financial crisis has helped to focus the attention of finance officials in the United States, Germany, Britain and France, who were eager to crack down on tax evaders to help replenish government coffers. But he cautioned that thousands of double-taxation laws would have to be amended, and in some cases referendums would have to be held first.

“This will require changing not just culture and habits, but also laws,” Mr. Gurría said.

A spokesman for the government of the principality of Monaco, who was not allowed to be identified because of official rules, said he expected an announcement this week that the country would adopt the rules.

Monaco is joining Switzerland, one of the countries that told the organization in the last few weeks that it would abide by the standards outlined under Article 26 of the organization’s Model Tax Convention, which requires the tax authorities to exchange information on request if there is probable cause to suspect tax evasion.

The other governments joining Switzerland and Monaco are Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The rush of compliance comes as leaders of the Group of 20 are expected to highlight the issue — and greatly expand the list of “uncooperative tax havens”— at their meeting on April 2 in London, subjecting the holdouts to intense international scrutiny.

Mr. Gurría said that there had been no effort to “blacklist” individual countries, and he said that Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao were technically not even “tax havens” at all but merely needed to make some changes to bring their regulations in line with the organization’s standards.

There is some doubt about how long the enthusiasm of the converts will last. After an outcry in the Swiss media after the announcement that the country would comply with the standards, the Swiss government issued a statement on Saturday saying the decision “does not constitute ‘the end of bank secrecy,’ ” and said the government had “stated on several occasions that Switzerland has no intention of relinquishing bank secrecy.”

Nicolas Michellod, an analyst with the Zurich office of Celent, an international financial research firm, said that “the Swiss are trying to gain time” and that “negotiating new tax treaties with each country will take years.”

He said that could give opponents of the measure on the Swiss right, whom he described as feeling aggrieved by the international criticism, a chance to drag out any changes to the banking laws until the issue moved out of the headlines.

Still, the United States and Germany, in particular, are unlikely to be satisfied even with the latest steps, he predicted, and will keep the pressure on.

Switzerland distinguishes between tax fraud and tax evasion and does not consider tax evasion a crime. By adopting the organization’s definition, it has agreed to exchange information when provided with specific information in a specific request. The Swiss authorities said they would still not allow broad “fishing expeditions.”

UBS, the big Swiss bank, is fighting a civil case in the United States in which the Internal Revenue Service is seeking account data on 52,000 Americans suspected of dodging taxes.