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Swiss Ready to Talk Taxes After Trading Insults With Germany

Switzerland is hoping to smooth over relations with Germany after two politicians recently exchanged insults. But tempers are fraying and things could be rough for a while.

Bank lock box with the Swiss flag on it

The fight was triggered by debate over banking secrecy laws in Switzerland

Switzerland has moved to ease tensions with Germany after words were exchanged this week between German Finance Minster Peer Steinbrueck and Thomas Mueller, a member of the Swiss parliament from the Christian Democratic People's Party.

Hans-Rudolf Merz

The Swiss president struck a conciliatory tone

Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Mertz said at a news conference in Bern on Thursday evening that the government was ready to renegotiate tax agreements despite the conflict.

"Problems can't be solved with verbal attacks and insults," Merz said. "For my part I never have and never will insult anybody. It is not my style."

Steinbrueck told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that he has been getting threatening letters from Switzerland and is being "bad-mouthed as a Nazi stooge" after Mueller compared him to "that generation of Germans…who went through the streets wearing leather coats, boots and (Nazi) arm bands" on the floor of the Swiss parliament.

Mueller was later admonished by members of his party as well as the speaker of the lower chamber, Chiara Simoneschi.

Mueller himself has refused to make a statement, though the German daily Bild is reporting that Mueller intended his remarks to be a personal attack on Steinbrueck.

The fight broke out after Steinbrueck made a speech to the finance ministers of the G20 group of economic powers in London at the weekend in which he compared the Swiss to Indians running scared from the cavalry.

History of tension

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck

Steinbrueck says he's been getting hate mail from Switzerland

Historically there has a been a lot of tension between Germany and Switzerland, especially when it comes to the atrocities committed by the German National Socialists during the 1930s and 40s.

Another thorny issue is banking secrecy, which is deeply woven into the fabric of Swiss life.

Carl Baudenbacher is a professor of economic law, and a Swiss citizen married to a German. He has a unique perspective on the situation.

Baudenbacher told Deutsche Welle that on the Swiss side there has always been a certain inferiority complex when it comes to Germany, and that the Swiss don't like to be lectured by their bigger neighbor -- which got even bigger after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"So now they have this feeling that Germany reunited and powerful again is trying to teach them a lesson," he added.

On the other hand, Baudenbacher says that, so long after the war, the Germans are finally at a point where they feel as if they shouldn't have to walk around in "sackcloth and ashes."

Switzerland tops the emigration list

Swiss Alps

Many Germans see Switzerland as their dream destination

Of course no matter who is wrong and who is right, this isn't a topic that's going to go away, even if both sides own up and apologize to one another.

According to the German foreign ministry, Switzerland is the number one destination for Germans looking to emigrate.

During 2007, 23,000 Germans packed up and headed south -- that's 9,000 more than went to the second most popular destination, the United States.

To date there are roughly 220,000 Germans living in Switzerland, the majority of whom hold well-paying, respectable jobs as doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Baudenbauch believes that, as a general rule, the Germans working and living in Switzerland are happy, and don't share the opinions of either Steinbrueck or Mueller.

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