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Austrian finance minister turns spotlight on UK, U.S. in bank secrecy row

Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter reacts during a plenary session in the house of parliament in Vienna January 30, 2013. REUTERS/Herwig
Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter reacts during a plenary session in the house of parliament in Vienna January 30, 2013. REUTERS/Herwig

VIENNA (Reuters) - Britain and the United States must do more to shed light on offshore financial centers in their own back yards in return for information on cross-border tax cheats elsewhere, Austria's finance minister said.

With pressure mounting on Austria to abandon its centuries-old tradition of banking secrecy, Maria Fekter told a newspaper she favored talks on information-sharing with the United States and European Union, "but these cannot be a one-way street".

"(The U.S. states of) Delaware and Nevada are tax havens and money-laundering havens that have to be laid bare just as much," Fekter told Die Presse in an interview published on Thursday.

"We also want the chances to be a money-laundering and tax haven in Great Britain to be addressed," she added, noting that EU officials had insisted a bailout of Cyprus include banning anonymous directorships of companies and trusts.

"What we demand of Cyprus, a small island, we also demand of the (United) Kingdom," Fekter, a conservative member of Austria's governing coalition, said.

Luxembourg, the only other EU country that had refused to swap personal data on savers in its banks, said on Wednesday it would so by 2015, heaping pressure on Vienna to follow suit.

Chancellor Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat, said this week that Austria was ready to negotiate with Brussels as long as bank secrecy remained intact for Austrian citizens.

But his conservative junior coalition partners - including Conservative party leader and Deputy Chancellor Michael Spindelegger in comments also published by newspapers on Thursday - have taken a harder line.

In a separate interview with Kurier, Fekter attacked tax practices in other territories linked to Britain that are major offshore financial centers.

"We want a trust registry for the Channel Islands, but also for countries where British law applies such as the Cayman Islands, Virgin Islands or Gibraltar," she said. "These are all areas that are havens for tax refugees."

The European Commission warned Austria on Monday that its banking secrecy would put it in a "lonely and unsustainable position" if it did not adopt the same rules as other countries in sharing data on foreign depositors.

The United States is also after citizens that stash wealth abroad, and is set to start talks with Austria soon.

EU officials have threatened to sue Austria if it gives the United States information about its citizens' bank accounts here but refused to do the same for other EU members.

Austria now withholds tax on EU citizens' interest income and sends the money anonymously to their home countries. Austrian bankers have played down the potential impact of sharing information on foreign depositors.

Austrian banks, the leading lenders in emerging Europe, at times use banking secrecy as a marketing tool, noting that only a constitutional amendment could end the centuries-old practice.

But foreign deposits play a relatively modest role. Central bank data show other EU citizens have around 35 billion euros ($45.80 billion) in banks here, a tenth of overall deposits. In all foreigners have around 53 billion euros in Austrian banks. ($1 = 0.7642 euros)

(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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