Switzerland accepted Wednesday a US-proposed settlement to a dispute over its banks' alleged complicity in tax evasion by Americans, sparking anger among nationalists for whom the Alpine nation's banking secrecy is non-negotiable.
"This is both a good and a practical solution," Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told reporters after a cabinet meeting approved an accord, adding that it would allow banks to draw a line under the past.
The details of the deal remain under wraps due to a confidentiality clause, and it requires parliamentary approval -- without the possibility of amendment, however.
But it will free up Swiss banks to circumvent parts of secrecy laws and turn over clients names to US authorities, and paves the way for fines to settle claims of abetting tax evasion.
Swiss media earlier reported that the overall payouts to US authorities could hit 10 billion Swiss francs ($10.3 billion, 8.0 billion euros).
Widmer-Schlumpf indicated that the government was given an ultimatum by Washington, two years after talks began.
"It was a unilateral offer, one that we couldn't negotiate," she said.
The acceptance of the US proposal came under fire from the right-wing Swiss People's Party, whose 54 seats in the 200-member lower house make it parliament's largest force.
The party said in a statement that the government had "surrendered" to Washington.
"The Americans dictated all the terms," it added, claiming that the goal was to boost the US financial sector and that Switzerland should have held firm.
Without an agreement, however, Swiss banks risked being barred from the American market, as well as a renewed legal assault by the US Department of Justice, which already has filed lawsuits against a dozen key players.
The reception from the banks was lukewarm.
In an initial statement, the Swiss Bankers' Association said the deal "should offer legal security to the banks and their clients".
But it later issued a terse communique in which it said that it was surprised no details had been disclosed, and that the government should ensure any fines were commensurate with alleged wrongdoing.
Washington has repeatedly accused Swiss banks of complicity in tax evasion by accepting money from Americans hiding taxable income from the US revenue service.
"If a bank has done a lot of business involving undeclared American funds, it will have to deal with the problem," Widmer-Schlumpf underlined.
"We hope that it will enable this chapter to be closed," she said, saying that it was nonetheless up to individual banks to decide if they wanted to cooperate with US authorities.
"Switzerland will pay nothing," she insisted.
But the deal is likely to include cantonal banks -- run by the Swiss equivalent of US states -- meaning that taxpayers could end up footing some of the bill indirectly.
A bill on the deal will be put to parliament next month, and the implementation of its provisions will be limited to one year, during which the banks must decide whether or not to fall into line, at their own risk.
With the global economic crisis having put tax havens into sharp focus, Switzerland has fought to defend its long-cherished principle of banking secrecy by giving ground in some areas but declining to allow the automatic handover of account details.
The government said that while the names of US clients can be handed over automatically, their account details can only be disclosed if Washington makes a specific request under rules related to the pursuit of tax dodgers.
Under the accord agreed Wednesday, Swiss banks will also give details of employees who deal with American clients, to help Washington keep tabs on its citizens.
In April 2012, Washington won the handover of the names of 10,000 such employees from some Swiss banks.
That came after a green light from the government, which faced criticism from banking sector employees for potentially exposing them to charges of abetting tax evasion.
The new deal would be far larger in scope, and the government said banks will be obliged by law to offer employees "maximum protection", with a 2.5-million-Swiss-franc fund set up by the banks for this purpose.