By Luis Ferre and Bryan Hoang
Don Beyer served as the United States Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein from 2009 to 2013. He also served as Lieutenant Governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1998.
As ambassador to Switzerland, were you for FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act)?
DB: Well it was U.S. law so I supported it in that respect. We did try to work hard to let the Treasury Department and Department of Justice know the potential unintended consequences of FATCA. When it first came, the regulations weren’t written. The way it was going to be implemented could make all the difference in the world. What we didn’t want it to do was force more American citizens to renounce their citizenship to avoid FATCA implications.
When we did the Town Hall meetings, I asked the question: “How many of you have had trouble with your Swiss bank account?” Every hand went up because it was routine for Swiss banks to close the accounts of Americans so as to not have to deal with FATCA. They would fire Americans who worked there. We had divorces because American women married Swiss men who owned their own family businesses. If she had signing authority, then that would give, through FATCA, the American government the right to invade his books. So there were a lot of early problems with it, but most of them were worked out. I think right now it’s largely a non-issue.
How was the FATCA controversy resolved?
DB: Just before I left we had an agreement with the Swiss government on how FATCA was going to be implemented going forward. That really took bank secrecy off the table.
How would you describe the current state of relations between the U.S. and other European states after the NSA scandal?
DB: We decided to come home May 29th because we knew another ambassador was coming. We have a daughter who’s a freshman at Rice and wanted to come back and learn how to ‘speak American’ again. Now, it’s almost December and there’s still no U.S. ambassador over there. If I would have stayed much longer I would have had to deal with the Edward Snowden issue. I think the NSA stuff has been very problematic for U.S. relations with many other countries. To the best of my knowledge, there was never any allegation of us listening to Swiss leaders. Maybe it’s because Switzerland doesn’t have a head of state (laughs) and that gave us an advantage in this case. So we had no head of state to listen to. But I know it has been very unpopular in the Swiss press. The Swiss are very private and privacy is an enormous issue. You see it with bank secrecy, that’s the essence of privacy. You’ve also seen it with the two FBI agents we had there. They would often go to the Swiss Department of Justice and say, “Here are these bad guys we know are in your country and that have terrorist connections. Go do something about it.” And they would say, “Privacy. Unless we know that they are doing something bad in Switzerland right now we’re going to respect their privacy.”
According to American Citizens Abroad, you held numerous town hall meetings for U.S. citizens in Switzerland to voice out their concerns. What was their most recurring concern?
DB: Thematically, their biggest concern was that no one represents them in Washington. That there were no members of Congress that represent Swiss overseas, no person in the whole executive branch who owns that portfolio. So they feel that American policy which often affects them, like FATCA, is done without any of their input. Individually, the number one thing was that the Justice Department’s cases against the Swiss banks had affected their ability to manage their own banking accounts in Switzerland. Voting parameters for U.S. citizens to vote in U.S. elections was also a common issue.
You served as Lt. Governor of Virginia under Republican George Allen. How was it serving as a Democrat under a Republican administration?
DB: It was very different. I had four years under Doug Wilder – who’s a Democrat – and then four years under George Allen. It was more fun under George Allen (laughs). I got to be the leader of the loyal opposition. Under Wilder I had to play the role of the supportive leader and subordinate and do whatever he asked me to do. Sort of what Joe Biden does with Barack Obama. Under Allen, I got to be the John Boehner under President Obama. Wow, that’s a terrible example (laughs). Both men were friendly to work with. George Allen was affable, never threw me under the bus. I often didn’t get invited to things, but that was ok (laughs).
This interview contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.
This interview originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of PPR.
Image courtesy of United States Department of State.