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After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.

In countries like Luxembourg, where bank secrecy used to be the norm, Europe’s top tax official - Algirdas Semeta - says depositors will no longer be able to hide their money from the prying eyes of governments.

“The revised directive promises full and lasting tax transparency in Europe," he said. "Bank secrecy is dead, and automatic exchange of information will be applied in its widest form.”

Luxembourg agreed to share bank information with member countries starting in 2017 -- with Austria signaling similar intentions by 2018.

Analyst Jacob Kirkegaard at the Peterson Institute for International Economics calls the agreement a milestone in global efforts to stop tax evasion.

“This is a very significant development and it’s really the culmination of what at least in the EU has been a decade-long struggle by some governments - in France, Italy and Germany - to really curb this longstanding practice of anonymous, offshore, if you like, bank accounts in other EU countries," he said.

Decades of bank secrecy helped establish Luxembourg as one of Europe’s biggest financial centers - where bank deposits are currently valued at more than 10 times the nation’s annual GDP. Switzerland - once among the world’s largest tax havens - ended bank secrecy last year, after intense legal pressure from Europe and the United States.

While tax cheats still can hide their money in less-developed countries where regulations are less stringent, Kirkegaard says the options and the benefits for doing so are shrinking.

“Well, you can go to places like Dubai, some have mentioned Singapore, but Singapore has also recently joined these efforts, so it becomes increasingly difficult to keep your money at a place at which they are readily available,” he said.

Some economists estimate that as much as 8 percent of the world's financial wealth - more than $7 trillion - may be hidden in tax haven countries. If all this illegal money were properly reported, conservative estimates say global tax revenues would grow by more than $200 billion a year.