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- The electronic exchange of information and respect for private life, banking secrecy and the free internal market (2010)
- The purpose of this essay is to assess the automatic exchange of information as described in EU Directive 2003/48 of 3 June 2003 on taxation of savings income in the form of interest payments with regard to the fundamental right of the individual to a private life, to banking secrecy and the freedoms on which the European internal market is based. The assessment reveals the conflicts of interests and values involved in the holding by banks (particularly those offering private banking services) of increasingly extensive, detailed and intimate information about their clients and in the automatic processing of that information by ever more powerful and sophisticated systems. Banking secrecy plays an essential role in protecting clients against the dangers which the disclosure of such information without their permission might produce. Banking secrecy exists not only in Luxembourg but also in many other European countries, and in Germany and France in particular it is not very different from the system applying in Luxembourg. While the French and German tax authorities do have some investigative powers not enjoyed by their Luxembourg counterparts, those powers are strictly circumscribed and cannot rely on the electronic exchange of information set out in EU Directive 2003/48/EC. While banking secrecy is totally incompatible with the electronic exchange of information, the core question is whether the latter can be reconciled with the respect for private life. In a Europe that sets itself up as the cradle of human rights, the general and en-masse exchange of private information cannot provide adequate and sufficient guarantees that the information exchanged will not be misused. The amount of interference in private life is clearly out of proportion to the public interest involved and is contrary to sub-section 2, article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and to articles 7 and 8 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Since the automatic exchange of information at least potentially risks restricting the free flow of capital among Member States and discouraging the use of transborder banking services, its compliance with the fundamental principles of the internal market also needs to be closely examined. The restrictions imposed by such exchange very probably go beyond the limits within which the free movement of capital and services is possible. The European Court of Justice has found that there is no proportionality if the measures supposedly undertaken in the general interest are actually based on a general presumption of tax evasion or tax fraud. However, it would be true to say that the ECJ does not always examine the tax restrictions placed on the free movement of capital particularly thoroughly to ensure that they are necessary or proportionate. The economic effectiveness of the automatic exchange of information is far from being proved and involves significant cost to the banks providing the information and to the tax authorities using it. To date the system does not appear to have produced any significant new tax revenue nor does it prevent the continuing outflow of capital from Europe. Yet withholding at source, which respects individual and economic freedoms, does generate tax revenue that is cost-free to the State. Exchange of information on request in justified cases using the OECD Tax Convention on Income and Capital model does also fight tax fraud while at the same time providing citizens with the guarantees required to ensure their private lives are respected. A combination of these two systems - withholding at source and exchange of information on request in justified cases - would create the proper balance between the public and private interest that the automatic exchange of information cannot provide.