Germans step up plans for tax harmony

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THE GERMAN drive for tax harmonisation across Europe gathered pace at the weekend amid fears of an outflow of German capital to European tax havens. On Saturday, the Finance Ministry confirmed that under its European presidency - beginning next month - Germany would push for harmonisation across Europe of taxation on interest earnings - including the so-called withholding tax that automatically deducts tax from interest payments.

According to the ministry, Germany wants to introduce a flat charge on interest yields and income from dividends that would be deducted automatically at source.

The German Finance Minister, Oskar Lafontaine, has long been concerned about the flight of jobs and capital to a more favourable tax climate in neighbouring countries. But the gnomes of Zurich are gleefully rubbing their hands at the prospect of Mr Lafontaine's tax refugees arriving at their door. As the new German government prepares to abolish perks for high earners, and battles against European Union tax havens, Swiss banks are bracing themselves for a new invasion of German marks.

Since the "Red-Green" government came to power in Bonn, Germans' interest in the discreet services of Swiss bankers has soared. The first stage of European monetary union, beginning next month, is expected to swell the ranks of those seeking a secure home for their savings.

The Swiss are only too pleased to help. "Invest your money in a place offering French charm, German efficiency and Swiss discretion," urges an advertisement placed by the Banks Association of Basle in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper.

Similar advertisements appear daily, from a myriad of Swiss banks. One, the Cantonal Bank of Thurgau, is moving nearer its customers by setting up a branch on the German border.

Germans bearing large wads of cash are already a common sight in Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Luxembourg. Since Germany started withholding tax a few years ago on interest earned on deposits, hundreds of billions of German marks have flowed into coffers in neighbouring countries. Some of the biggest German banks are under investigation for helping their customers to spirit their wealth away into foreign subsidiaries, especially in Luxembourg.

Because of the growing inquisitiveness of the tax authorities, much of this flight takes the form of bulging briefcases chauffeur-driven across the border. The narrow main street in Vaduz, the capital of Lichtenstein, is crammed with limousines bearing Frankfurt and Munich number plates. The banks stay open at weekends to cope with the rush.

As Mr Lafontaine seeks to harmonise the taxing habits - or otherwise - of European neighbours, Switzerland and Lichtenstein stand to benefit most from his grasping hands. They are not EU members, and will therefore remain in splendid isolation from any putative Europe-wide tax regime.

"We have so many German customers," says Patrizia Bonaventura of Baumann, a bank based in Basle. "I think more people will come, especially with the launch of the euro."

This being the twilight world of Swiss banking, there is, of course, no way of knowing how many is "so many", and how much there is stashed away in the Alps. Suffice to say that most Swiss institutions demand a minimum deposit of at least 100,000 marks (pounds 37,000).

Nor can anyone tell how many more Germans have been crossing the Swiss border since Mr Lafontaine settled into his throne at the Bonn Finance Ministry.

"We've seen a lot of new business from Germany because of the tax situation there with the new government," Eric Sarasin of Bank Sarasin is reported as saying. "We will see new waves of German private clients coming into Switzerland," he predicted.

Companies, too, are weighing their options. Last year DM40bn of investment flowed out of Germany, and only DM5bn trickled in. According to the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DIHT), a survey of 50,000 enterprises last month revealed that many would consider relocating abroad, depending on Mr Lafontaine's tax reforms.

As the Finance Minister's plans slowly take shape - the first batch reached the Bundestag on Friday - business is unenthused. "We cannot agree with this concept," says a spokesman of the DIHT. In the chamber's view, the new ecology tax, in particular, will only make matters worse for German industry in the face of foreign competition.