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EU ministers to thrash out tax clampdown

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(BRUSSELS) - As tens of millions languish on the dole with EU austerity blamed for deepening recession, finance ministers will switch their focus Tuesday from bailout negotiations to the pursuit of a trillion-euro annual tax-fraud bounty.

European Union governments are looking to ready a package that will scrap national banking secrecy laws, and are called to overcome holdout opposition from Austria after Luxembourg said it would loosen its policies at a May 22 summit of leaders on the issue.

The drive to uncover revenues stashed away in offshore accounts is backed by other non-EU governments in 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.

Britain has made the issue a priority of its presidencies of the G7 and G8, and Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said: "It is vital that both developed and developing countries collect the tax that is due to them."

The ministers are meeting on Tuesday following talks among the 17 eurozone states on Monday evening taking stock of progress on bailouts for Cyprus and Greece.

Austria is seeking a compromise that would preserve banking secrecy for its nationals but open accounts held by foreigners to scrutiny.

Chancellor Werner Faymann and domestic rivals have said three conditions must be met however, including respecting Austria's bilateral tax agreements with Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and a requirement that authorities identify the financial owners of shell corporations and trusts.

A statement from Vienna also reiterated that "Austrian banking secrecy for resident taxpayers must not be affected."

The Alpine republic, especially its vocal Finance Minister Maria Fekter, has repeatedly called for closer investigations of "the real tax havens", citing British-dependent territories such as the Channel Islands, Gibraltar and the Cayman Islands.

She has previously also warned that the clampdown on money-laundering risks freeing governments to "snoop" into bank accounts.

EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Semeta has said he expected a breakthrough on the automatic sharing of customer bank data.

Agreement is expected on a legal update covering savings taxation that has been stalled since 2008, plus a mandate to negotiate with Switzerland and other third parties on the exchange of bank account information.

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso wrote to EU heads last week to say that the principle of cross-border sharing of information should be applied to all types of state revenues.

The EU has been tightening up on tax evasion and money laundering since the 2008 global financial crisis highlighted the problem alongside the reckless speculative fever that sparked banking and economic crises.

On normally dominant eurozone issues, the talks are expected to see go-aheads for the disbursement of three billion euros ($3.9 billion) in loans to Cyprus via a rescue fund set up in the wake of the Greek financial collapse.

The ministers are also expected to give the green light to another 7.5 billion euros of the agreed Greek package between May and June, following checks on conditions imposed in negotiations with the IMF.

No final decision is expected, however, on easing Portugal's long-term repayment terms on its bailout after a deal was struck on Ireland.

New Italian Finance Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni is expected to reassure his colleagues that Rome is fully focused on taming the country's high debt levels.

Meeting of Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN)

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