BERLIN Aug 12 The leader of Germany's
centre-left opposition, Sigmar Gabriel, criticised Swiss banks
for helping Germans avoid taxes, giving a strongly worded radio
interview on Sunday that could put new strains on ties between
the two neighbours.
Gabriel, whose Social Democrats (SPD) have blocked a deal
between the German and Swiss governments to levy taxes on German
assets in Swiss bank accounts, told Deutschlandfunk that Swiss
banking practices in Germany were comparable with organised
"It's a serious crime," said Gabriel, the chairman of the
SPD who may run against Chancellor Angela Merkel in the 2013
election. "We're talking about organised crime in Swiss banks
(operating) in Germany."
Gabriel, who plans to make criticism of banks a centrepiece
of the SPD's 2013 campaign, added the sentence for large-scale
tax evasion in Germany could be as long as 10 years in prison.
The Swiss Banking Association completely rejected his
accusation, spokesman Thomas Sutter said.
"It has no basis in fact," he added. "If certain Social
Democrat politicians are prepared to make this kind of
accusation, it should be backed up with facts."
Switzerland and Germany struck the tax deal in April, but
the ratification is in doubt amid recent purchases by Germany of
data leaked from Swiss banks.
The SPD has promised to veto the deal in its current form in
the upper house of parliament, while a spokesman for the Swiss
government said on Thursday it would not be renegotiated.
Gabriel said he was upset the German government had not set
up a special prosecutor to fight this tax evasion and had not
been as tough as the United States in negotiating with
"Why don't we have the courage for that ourselves?" Gabriel
said. "Why don't we turn this over to the federal prosecutor to
go after it? I'm certain it would put a quick end to all that."
On Saturday, another SPD leader, Andrea Nahles, said the
deal to levy taxes on German assets wasn't worth the paper it
was written on and should be scrapped.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's government says the deal would
enable Berlin to net huge sums if and when it takes effect.
Germans hold an estimated 150 billion euros ($184.7 billion) in
Swiss accounts. But the government needs SPD backing for it in
the upper house.
Banking secrecy is crucial to Switzerland's $2 trillion
offshore wealth management industry, and the country has refused
to agree to an automatic exchange of information.
The Swiss have reacted angrily to the purchases by German
state prosecutors of data from presumed whistleblowers and even
issued arrest warrants earlier this year for three German tax
investigators they accused of buying secret tax data.
($1 = 0.8121 euros)
(Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum, with reporting by Katharina