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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union finance ministers gave the green light on Tuesday to start talks with Switzerland, Liechtenstein and three other countries on new rules for swapping bank account information, officials said.
The talks had long been opposed by EU members Luxembourg and Austria, which were seeking to defend their own bank secrecy rules, but on Tuesday their finance ministers dropped those objections.
"Ministers have adopted a negotiating mandate on (the) savings tax with Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino," said one EU official, with knowledge of the talks. The basis of the talks with Switzerland will be the so-called EU savings tax directive.
By giving the European Commission the go-ahead to negotiate with Switzerland, EU finance ministers hope to push for the same rules to be applied to Switzerland as would be applicable to Austria and the wider European Union.
A spokesman for Switzerland's department of finance underscored the country's willingness to cooperate and said it would now consider how to respond.
"Back in 2009, Switzerland had already declared its willingness in principle to discuss extending the EU savings tax agreement so as to close loopholes," said the spokesman.
"In its assessment of future frameworks, Switzerland will use developments in important international financial centres outside the EU in addition to developments in the EU."
Austria's support is a symbolically important gesture that takes it closer to ending its own bank secrecy for foreigners, bringing it into line with the rest of the EU.
Reporting By John O'Donnell; Editing by Susan Fenton, Ron Askew