Attorney Douglas Hornung believes Switzerland no longer has a captain to defend its interests and values. It is up to parliament to be the captain who helps the country hold its head high, he says.
Parliament is handling a project for an exception law that would allow Swiss banks to participate in the “reconciliation” program proposed by the U.S. to end the fiscal war.
Some say, “We don’t have a choice.” If we don’t succumb to the ultimatum posed by American authorities, they’ll impose sanctions on Credit Suisse or a state bank — or even all Swiss banks. Washington would deliver them a death sentence by blacklisting them and prohibiting them from making transactions in dollars or on the American market. The Wegelin Bank* example speaks enough to the accrued risk and the seriousness of these threats. The American ultimatum is “non-negotiable,” and “the Americans cannot wait.” It is therefore imperative that the government immediately decide on a law of exception countering the Swiss law on the matter and authorize banks to collaborate.
In the midst of all this, the information released would give American authorities access to all data related not only to bank employees, but also all to written correspondences that could have been exchanged between a bank and external lawyers — hey there, professional secrecy! — external managers or intermediaries, business secrecy being just as negligible as attorney-client privilege.
The Americans have magnanimously accepted that bank employees whose names were communicated should have access, at the bank’s expense, to legal assistance — but only from American lawyers, and only once the employee has been hassled, or even imprisoned, in the U.S.; others will be able to solicit the help of a Swiss attorney at their own expense.
This power play is perfectly contradictory to all principles of international law. It constitutes an unacceptable mismanagement of an independent state’s sovereignty and a crass violation of the age-old principle of equality between sovereign states. But “we don’t have a choice.”
Actually, we do have a choice! The choice not to lose our nerve in front a foreign force, however powerful it may be. The choice to be the worthy representative of a sovereign, democratic nation, the choice not to accept blackmail — whether it’s from terrorists or from an ally country — the choice to uphold and apply universally recognized fundamental principles, the choice to defend our institutions and standards, the choice that honors instead of the choice of dishonor.
Churchill was right to say to Chamberlain: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”
Today’s situation is identical. Switzerland exposed its weaknesses. It is now the target of incessant attacks, not only from the Americans but also from European countries. It showed itself to be fragile, not very scrupulous in defending its law and defeatist as soon as the opponent wrinkled an eyebrow. Today, it is reaping the consequences of this submissive approach — and this is only the beginning. There is panic on this ship; Switzerland needs a captain. Parliament should be this captain, who knows his values and defends them!
Besides, Americans don’t need any more information or data. The five largest banks — Credit Suisse, HSBC, Julius Baer and the Zurich and Basel state banks — have already provided all their documentation. All they have to do is negotiate the huge fine that the U.S. will inflict upon them, and it is by no means necessary to have an exception law authorizing them to provide what they’ve already provided! Oh, they committed serious mistakes? Well, then, they should take responsibility, starting with the senior officials behind this suicidal policy.
The American administration is also threatening other banks? Well, then, it should show evidence and demonstrate that the others have also made serious mistakes. We’ll see at that moment if these other banks have a systemic significance that would require them to be saved, as was the case for the Union Bank of Switzerland, or if it’s preferable to let them deal with their own responsibilities. The end of Wegelin bank had no importance if it was only psychological and certainly didn’t necessitate that Switzerland give up its fundamental laws and principles. What’s more, it let the bank fall.
If the U.S. is threatening to deny all Swiss banks access to the American market or the ability to conduct business in dollars, it should just say that, or Switzerland should alert an international authority such as the World Trade Organization to report an abuse of power. But let’s remain graceful: Let’s not give into unseemly blackmail, and let’s remain the proud masters of our destiny, as of our past. We do have a choice!
*Editor’s Note: Wegelin & Co. was the oldest private bank in Switzerland, which was ordered by a U.S. court in March to pay $57.85 million after admitting to helping Americans evade taxes.