European governments Tuesday firmed up plans to share bank records across borders for tax collection in a purge on money-laundering and offshore havens -- but failed to prise open key savers' data in Austria and Luxembourg.
In a mixed outcome for talks that had begun with high expectations, the European Commission won a mandate to negotiate new transparency channels with global banking haven Switzerland, but pressure on the two holdouts now goes to a summit of European leaders next week in Brussels.
The overall drive is intended to recover a chunk of what EU analyses estimate is a trillion euros every year in lost taxes that could help job creation and growth in a time of dogged recession and record unemployment affecting tens of millions of European citizens.
EU Taxation Commissioner Algirdas Semeta adopted a philosophical view -- given that changes to tax law across the EU require the unanimous backing of all, soon-to-be 28 member states.
"Although I cannot honestly say these (high) expectations were fully met today, we did make good progress," he told a press conference at the close of two days of talks that also saw Slovenia perched perilously close to needing eurozone financial intervention, and ministers struggle over how to treat big depositors in future Cyprus-style bank "bail-ins".
However, he said, with the mandate to fight for access to hidden tax value locked in Swiss bank vaults, Semeta insisted: "I believe ... we can return billions to their rightful treasuries."
And as for the savings held in the two holdouts, "thankfully there is a chance to rectify this situation" come the summit.
His appetite whetted, he now wants automatic exchange of banking information extended to dividends, capital gains and royalties.
Swiss authorities said they had "taken note" of the development, stating that it had in 2009 "already declared its willingness in principle to discuss extending the EU savings tax agreement so as to close loopholes."
EU President Herman Van Rompuy joined the ministers over breakfast, in what one diplomat underlined was a demonstration of national leaders' collective will.
But Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter, who recently likened the demands to government "snooping", said there would need to be significant movement from British-dependent Channel Islands and Caribbean territories in applying new standards "to know who is behind the accounts".
She stressed that Austria's constitution would need to be changed, and warned of strong parliamentary resistance.
Nonetheless, Britain was happy to crow about its participation in a joint statement with 16 other EU member states to accelerate the political battle.
The others were: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.
A British statement said that its "Overseas Territories and the Isle of Man have also committed to early participation," although not the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey.
Lower-level officials slaving away on the complex impact of tax changes on trillions in deposits, investments and ill-gotten gains, are candid about the determination from their political masters to be able to say they are ensuring tax fairness at a time of stubborn EU recession.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker met with Van Rompuy on Monday night, having previously indicated a willingness to soften opposition to the transparency standards, after fully five years in which his government and Vienna repeatedly filibustered its passage into law.
Neighbouring Liechtenstein is also "ready to talk" about a partially automatic exchange of tax-related information, its Prime Minister Adrian Hasler said earlier.
The big countries driving the issue say the time is right to implement a European equivalent of a law applied by the United States and the Group of 20 major international economies.
On Friday at G7 talks in England, ministers including US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew firmed up their commitment to combatting tax evasion, which is illegal, and tax avoidance, which occurs when individuals and companies take advantage of legal loopholes.