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A scheme designed to net trillions from global tax havens is being scuppered


Switzerland and other offshore specialists are doing their best to frustrate international transparency in taxation


The world is seeing the first stirrings of an emerging new architecture of global transparency in taxation which could, if pushed forwards, help governments for the first time raise serious revenues from the estimated $21-32 trillion sitting offshore. Switzerland, in alliance with the tax havens of Luxembourg, Austria and Britain, is leading the charge to derail it.


The battle now under way hinges on a powerful transparency principle called automatic information exchange. According to this, governments routinely tell each other about the cross-border assets and income of one another’s citizens so they can tax them appropriately. This is the gold standard of transparency and the basis for a multilateral European scheme, the European Savings Tax Directive, which includes 42 European and other countries. This multilateral scheme is riddled with loopholes, but it is already up and running. Amendments to plug those loopholes are being prepared.


A second pillar of the emerging architecture is run by the OECD, a club of rich countries that contains several tax havens (including Britain, which partly controls a number of major tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Jersey).


The OECD scheme runs on a ridiculously weak transparency principle: information exchange on request. Here, you cannot make blanket information requests to a tax haven: you must ask, on a case-by-case basis. That means you effectively have to know the information you are looking for – before you ask for it. Precious little information flows through these narrow pipes.


The OECD also runs a black, white and grey list system of tax havens. To get a sense of how useful this list is, note that in April 2009, when G20 leaders declared that “the era of banking secrecy is over” and asked the OECD to lead the charge, the blacklist was empty within just five days. The G20 asked the OECD to drain a swamp – and it has been handing out drinking straws. The project helps at the margins, but is not a patch on the European scheme.