MEPs lead the charge on Openlux tax transparency battle

Luxembourg dismisses accusations of rampant tax avoidance, insists the country respects all applicable European and International rules and standards in terms of tax transparency

German MEP Sven Giegold (Greens/EFA): “During the European Semester of the last three years, the EU has explicitly asked Luxembourg to change its tax system because it invites aggressive tax avoidance”
German MEP Sven Giegold (Greens/EFA): “During the European Semester of the last three years, the EU has explicitly asked Luxembourg to change its tax system because it invites aggressive tax avoidance”

Luxembourg has dismissed accusations of rampant tax avoidance and insisted that the country respects “all the applicable European and international rules and standards in terms of tax transparency, the fight against tax abuses and the fight against money laundering and the financing of terrorism”.

The duchy is reeling from relevations made public in an exercise dubbed as Openlux, a collaboration between Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Monde, OCCRP and 14 other media partners about tax avoidance practices in Luxembourg.

Journalists made Luxembourg’s register of beneficial owners of companies and investment funds completely searchable for the first time.

The register revealed that more than 250 billionaires run companies in Luxembourg, with assets of around €6,500 billion. In addition, there are an estimated €4,500 billion in investment funds. At least 4,600 beneficial owners of companies Are German, while around 15,000 French businesspeople own Luxembourg companies with total assets of €100 billion, equal to 4% of French GDP.

The data was first relased on Sunday 7 February, with regular updates since.

Luxembourg immediately responded to the accusations. “The government rejects the assertions contained in this series of articles as well as the totally unjustified representation of the country and its economy,” a statement read.

“The Grand Duchy was one of the first European countries to set up a public register of beneficial owners (RBE) and is one of the only countries in the European Union to have opted for an open and transparent register’, accessible free of charge online.”

The articles revealed there are 55,000 offshore companies managing €6,500 billion in a country of around 2,500

In addition, the database of owners of Luxembourg companies reconstituted by Le Monde included several dozen people appearing in cases of corruption, tax fraud and money laundering, as well as individuals linked to organised crime or who have been the subject of sanctions.

Luxembourg’s opposition Pirate Party noted that the RBE was made public thanks to pressure from civil society and against the will of many EU member countries. It urged the government to take the revelations seriously and called on civil society to mobilize to ensure that “these practices of tax avoidance and evasion are finally stopped”.

Sven Clement, of Piraten, said that even if Luxembourg were to ensure that large multinationals make tax optimization completely legally, the country would still be at the origin of billions of euros in lost tax revenue for other countries where these revenues could have been invested for the community.

In the same vein, the Collectif Tax Justice Lëtzebuerg (CTJL) said Luxembourg should renew its international solidarity towards its neighbours and the other countries of the international community by fighting against tax evasion of multinational companies and large fortunes”.

The CTJL said the priority should be strengthening the capabilities of the “Commission de surveillance du secteur financier (CSSF,) the Ministry of Finance, the Luxembourg Business Registers, and the Financial Intelligence Unit.

The German Member of the European Parliament, Sven Giegold, financial and economic policy spokesperson of the Greens/EFA group, said that the reaction of the Luxembourg government could not be more brazen.

“The country is a thriving intra-European tax haven. If Luxembourg denies being a tax haven, this can only be described as fake news. Luxembourg shows no remorse whatsoever, even though its tax policy causes massive financial damage to other EU countries,” he said.

“During the European Semester of the last three years, the EU has explicitly asked Luxembourg to change its tax system because it invites aggressive tax avoidance.”

Giegold said that Luxembourg today acts mainly as a gateway between European countries and tax havens around the world.

“To act as a tax avoidance gateway, one does not need to have a ‘harmful’ tax system in the technical sense,” he said. “The government’s statement is a red herring. It is true that nationals and foreigners are treated equally under the law. But the tax rules make Luxembourg particularly attractive for the management of assets abroad. Luxembourg bears a great responsibility in this respect, to which the government should not react with ostrich policies.”

He noted that, more numerous than the Germans and Italians combined, more numerous than the Luxembourgers themselves, the French figure in pole position in the list of owners of Luxembourg companies reconstituted by Le Monde for the OpenLux survey.

Nearly 15,000 French people , including 37 of the 50 richest families in France, including art collectors, film producers, wealthy heirs, landowners, figures of the “start-up nation, own companies in Luxembourg, holding assets equal to 4% of France’s GDP.

“This is a bonanza that would be damn useful for our public services these days,” Giegold said.

Aurore Lalucq, S&D spokesperson on tax matters, said that if anyone had any doubts if Luxembourg was a tax haven, OpenLux had dispelled them.

“Companies holding assets include Amazon and Fiat – that is the scale of tax avoidance revealed by the investigation. Transparency rules passed by the European Parliament on anti-money laundering have helped to disclose the true scale of the scandal,” she said.

“We need a global, or at least an EU-wide minimum effective tax rate, to cut tax competition between member states. Ordinary people must not be left to pick up the unpaid tax bill of the rich and powerful multinational companies.”

Lalucq said cooperation between tax administrations must be deepened to make it harder for tax evaders to escape the net.

“OpenLux has revealed that a large majority of Luxembourg companies are purely financial holdings that can be used to disguise tax avoidance, so we need substance rules to put an end to such shell companies,” she said.

“EU policies on cross border tax avoidance should be seriously strengthened when it comes to wealth and high personal income.”

Jonás Fernández, S&D spokesperson for economic and monetary affairs, said: “Some tax justice solutions are within reach to ensure transparency delivers fully. As the EU is about to revise its list of tax havens next week, we recall our demand to lead by example and to subject EU countries to the same rules and criteria as other countries. The EU listing criteria should also be revised to ensure greater transparency and seriously halt tax avoidance opportunities. In two weeks, EU ministers will decide on public country-by-country reporting, which has been blocked for years in the Council. OpenLux proves once again that we need this reform of company law to oblige transnational companies to disclose income tax information and thereby prevent tax avoidance.”

Fernández said the EU loses €170 billion every year in taxes due to such loopholes that enable aggressive tax planning. “Money we urgently need to build hospitals and schools, especially now during the pandemic. It is time for tax justice.”

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