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19th Sep 2020

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The year that almost saw a clampdown on tax evasion

  • Austria and Luxembourg keep making u-turns (Photo: .michael.newman.)

What do Russian oligarchs have in common with the campaign treasurer of French President Francois Hollande? Or Greece's richest with the family of Azeri autocrat Ilham Aliyev?

They were all listed in "Offshore Leaks," a database of over 130,000 offshore accounts obtained by Gerard Ryle, an Australian reporter who heads the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

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  • Experts say the bulk of the world's privately-held wealth is in opaque 'discretionary structures' (Photo: Alan Cleaver)

The consortium gave access to the data to over 80 media around the world, including EUobserver.

Some of the news reports which followed led to the resignation of Herbert Stepic, the CEO of Austria's Raiffeisen Bank International, after revelations he owned secret firms in the Caribbean.

French President Francois Hollande was left with a red face when it emerged that his former campaign treasurer, Jean-Jacques Augier, held shares in offshore companies.

The embarrassment was all the greater because the Augier news coincided with the admission, by France's former budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, that he had lied for 20 years about having €600,000 in foreign accounts.

Meanwhile, an investigative report into offshore holdings by a former Macedonian minister, Zanko Cado, published on EUobserver in October, proved that he was instrumental in the demise of state-owned companies in Serbia.

On the EU policy side, Offshore Leaks gave some tailwind to slow-moving initiatives on tax evasion.

EU tax commissioner Algirdas Semeta said the investigative reports helped him to revive the proposals.

"Citizens, people in member states have started paying much more attention to how their countries can collect taxes which are due under national law … If you ask me, I personally think Offshore Leaks could be identified as the most significant trigger behind these developments," he said.

The developments also shed a glimmer of light into places used to complete opacity.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron forced some of the Caribbean tax havens under British protection to sign up to a tax transparency initiative.

Switzerland lifted some elements of its bank secrecy and signed bilateral agreements on bank information with the US and the UK when they pursue tax cheats.

A deal with Germany is still in the making after the original one was struck down by parliament for being too narrow in scope.

But Austria and Luxembourg, the two last hold-outs on EU automatic exchange of bank data, dug in their heels and opposed an deal after initially promising to do so by the end of the year.

Despite pressure from the EU commission and other member states, Vienna and Luxembourg stood firm and said they want to wait until Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra and San Marino sign up.

In parallel, the publication of the leaked "Lagarde list" showed that some 2,000 of Greece's richest people have undeclared Swiss accounts at a time when the bail-out country is struggling to collect tax revenues.

The list is named after International Monetary Fund chief and former French finance minister Christine Lagarde, who had passed on the information to Greek officials in 2010, but to little avail.

Despite the leaks and the EU proposals, finance consultancies continue to create new "discretionary structures" to ensure the world's wealthiest people and corporations can still pursue their old habits of paying little or no tax at all.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2013 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

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