As the plot for a spy saga it is not the most promising: a mole in the tax office.
But the case of a suspected Swiss agent who is accused of spying from inside German financial authorities has caused ructions between two of Europe’s wealthiest countries, reviving tensions over Switzerland’s role in helping its neighbours to avoid tax in their homeland.
The alleged agent, “Daniel M.”, a former security guard at UBS who worked for tax authorities in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, was detained a week ago in Frankfurt. His arrest has led to tense conversations between politicians in Berlin and Bern and further exposed the two countries’ dispute over that most Swiss of issues: the secrecy of its banks.
Steffen Seibert, the spokesman for German chancellor Angela Merkel, on Friday called for a full investigation to reveal “to the last detail” what had happened.
Most of the time Swiss relations with its northern neighbour are frictionless, but tactics used by the German authorities in pursuit of tax evaders have long irritated the affluent Alpine state, the world’s largest manager of private cross-border wealth.
Bern, which has attempted to clean up Switzerland’s image as a haven for money gained through illicit means, was angered in 2010 when German officials paid for stolen CDs that revealed details of German citizens’ bank accounts in Switzerland.
It was these purchases that, according to German media reports, led the Swiss intelligence agencies to plant moles in the financial administration of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, to try to find out how information was being leaked.
German media reported on Thursday that another as-yet unnamed mole had been uncovered working undercover in the same financial administration.
The Swiss government has acknowledged that in 2011 Swiss police asked the country’s NDB intelligence service to help with investigations into the stolen bank data in Germany. Such steps were not unusual, “especially when there is no possibility of police co-operation or international legal assistance”, the government said. But those NDB activities had stopped in 2014, according to Bern.
Neither the Swiss defence ministry nor the NDB would comment on “ongoing cases,” but Bern confirmed that Didier Burkhalter, the Swiss foreign minister, had this week spoken with Sigmar Gabriel, his German counterpart, “to clear up outstanding questions”.
A spokesman for Mr Gabriel said the foreign minister found it “hard to imagine” that Switzerland was spying on German tax authorities. “Now it is important that the situation is cleared up quickly on all sides,” the spokesman said.
“Daniel M.” worked until 2010 as a security official at UBS, according to people with knowledge of his career. UBS had no comment.
The publicity surrounding the Swiss spy threatens to overshadow Bern’s most recent efforts to quash the country’s reputation as a tax haven. The US has led a global crackdown over the past decade on Swiss banks that helped clients sidestep tax authorities — and has imposed more than $5bn in fines in the process.
Switzerland this year launched an automatic exchange of tax information with EU countries, including Germany. It has also begun work on similar agreements to exchange information with other countries including China and Russia.