March 19, 2009

Parliamentarians say the darnedest things:

A tax row between Switzerland and Germany took a venomous turn on Thursday, with Nazi accusations against German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck after he likened the Swiss to cowed "Indians." 

Steinbrueck -- no stranger to scandal over his own remarks -- revealed in an interview that he had received hate mail and had been compared to a Nazi for his attacks on Switzerland's cherished traditions of banking secrecy.  "I get threatening letters from Switzerland and get called a Nazi henchman," Steinbrueck told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily. "It is totally out of proportion and unacceptable," he said.

During a Swiss parliamentary debate on banking secrecy on Wednesday, Christian Democrat parliamentarian Thomas Mueller said Steinbrueck was like a figure from the Nazi era -- a sensitive topic in both Germany and Switzerland. He described the minister as the new definition of the "ugly German."  "He reminds me of the old generation of Germans, who 60 years ago went through the streets with leather coats, boots and armbands."

Mueller was later rapped by his colleagues and the speaker of the lower chamber, Chiara Simoneschi. "If I had been aware of the extent of these declarations, I would have intervened. His comments were offensive and inappropriate," she said.

Swiss tabloid Blick showed Steinbrueck on its front page on Thursday with the headline "Nazi! Parliamentarian likened German finance minister to Gestapo." Zurich daily Tages Anzeiger said the dispute "has become uglier." The Swiss government was due to hold an extraordinary meeting on the banking secrecy issue on Thursday, a spokesman said.

The tone between the neighbours has sharpened following German pressure on Bern over its banking secrecy laws, which Berlin claims encourages tax evasion.

Oddly, I had thought that Switzerland agreed to cooperate on tax evasion earlier in the week.  Regardless, while this sort of conduct is not what one expects from gentlemen at this level, it highlights the level of frustration lawmakers around the world are feeling as they try to rewrite financial regulations to deal with the current economic mess. 

And, since no real harm was done, it provides a bit of needed levity. There's not much to laugh about in the World News section these days.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

RELATED CONTENT