States keen to protect identity of Europe's shadow rich
EU states are trying to stop the general public from finding out who really owns what in Europe’s offshore firms, trusts, foundations, and other opaque structures.
The anti-money laundering directive (AMLD) is entering the final stage of negotiations on Tuesday (16 December) in Brussels in so-called trialogue talks between MEPs, diplomats, and European Commission officials.
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It's designed to clamp down on tax evasion and organised crime.
Some campaigners say it could also have strategic consequences by exposing the scale of corruption in EU neighbouring countries, such as Russia.
The European Parliament wants national governments to set up a publicly accessible register on “beneficial ownership”.
“We are doing everything that we can to have that through in the final text of the directive,” Latvian centre-right deputy Krisjanis Karins, one of the assembly’s two lead negotiators, told EUobserver.
But a leaked compromise text, seen by this website, indicates that a blocking majority of member states is keen to maintain a veil of secrecy.
They don’t oppose creating the register. But they insist on restricting access to “competent authorities”, such as national Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs).
The commission’s proposal is to restrict access, but to let people who can demonstrate a “legitimate interest” - such as investigative journalists or NGOs - see the registry as well.
Tamira Gunzburg, the Brussels director of the One campaign - a pro-transparency pressure group - said Austria, Croatia, Denmark, France, Finland, Slovenia, Sweden, and the UK back public access.
But Germany, Poland, and Spain oppose it, while the commission doesn’t have a vote.
Some countries want the register to give the name and date of birth of the owner, while others also think this is too much.
Meanwhile, there is uncertainty on how to close loopholes on trusts - among the most tricky of the “discretionary structures” used by people to hide their wealth.
“The momentum for transparency is growing every day,” Gunzburg noted.
At the same time, Karins said "it's not quite clear in the end how trusts will or will not be directly handled in this directive … ideas are simple, cheap, and easy, but actually finding the language which casts the net properly is a challenge."
Pressure is mounting on the EU to do more after media revelations of tax-dodging schemes in Luxembourg.
Leading journalists from 23 countries last week wrote to commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg PM, to take action after the “LuxLeaks” scandal.
He responded to say he backs the AMLD register, but repeated the commission line that only people with a “justified legitimate interest” should get access.
The parliament’s Karins noted the AMLD and LuxLeaks cover different ground.
“This directive is really about money-laundering and terrorism financing, whereas LuxLeaks is a tax avoidance issue which raises serious questions about competition,” he explained.
But he said the Juncker furore has come up in the AMLD trialogues in terms of political atmosphere.
For her part, Elena Panfilova, the Moscow head of Transparency International, a European NGO, believes corruption also has a strategic meaning.
On one hand, state embezzlement in Russia has depleted the Kremlin’s rainy day fund and its ability to resist EU and US sanctions.
But on the other hand, clandestine Russian money is being used to influence European companies, politicians, and media.
Panfilova told EUobserver that if the general public in Russia could see how much of their taxes the nomenklatura has stashed in Europe it would harm Vladimir Putin’s popularity.
It might also help to rein in the administration’s greed.
“A strong AMLD is one of the most important contributions the EU could make to reform and rule of law in Russia”, she said.
“The missing money means schools not funded properly, hospitals not built. For Russian people it’s not funny money, it’s literally killing them”.