The EU commissioner in charge of corporate transparency said it was unacceptable that the wealthy can hide their money abroad to avoid paying tax, as Brussels stepped up its campaign against the aggressive avoidance revealed by the Panama Papers scandal.
Vera Jourova said she was exploring ways to toughen existing rules aimed at forcing trusts and companies to disclose their true owners. These rules, agreed on last year, require nations to set up registers disclosing “beneficial ownership”.
The existing legislation includes carveouts for trusts from important parts of the rules — meaning that, in some cases, they are not required to register their true ownership at all.
“We have to look at the accessibility of the beneficial ownership registers and also look at the rules for trusts,” said Ms Jourova, EU justice commissioner. “We need to further increase transparency.”
She added: “No ordinary citizen who works hard every day and pays taxes can understand why there are still ways for some people to hide their money from tax authorities. We cannot tolerate this — it is a question of fairness and justice in the EU.”
The former Czech government minister — who said tougher rules would also help thwart the financing of terrorists and criminal groups — was speaking ahead of a meeting of EU finance ministers in Amsterdam on Friday, where tax avoidance will be discussed.
Brussels’ plans could spark protests in London and Berlin. The carveouts for trusts were a big concession won by the UK in work on the 2015 law, while Berlin also pushed then to thwart demands for the information on companies to be made fully available publicly.
No ordinary citizen who works hard every day and pays taxes can understand why there are still ways for some people to hide their money from tax authorities — it is a question of fairness and justice
– Vera Jourova, EU justice commissioner
But the leak this month of millions of documents from a Panamanian law firm, showing how it helped thousands of individuals to hide money offshore, has left governments reeling from criticism that they have not done more to tackle tax evasion.
David Cameron, UK prime minister, has come under intense scrutiny after it was revealed his father had been a director of an offshore fund advised by the law firm, Mossack Fonseca. It later emerged he personally intervened in 2013 to stave off more ambitious EU transparency rules for trusts.
At present, trusts only have to register if they are deemed to generate “tax consequences” — wording criticised at the time by the Austrian government as “too broad and highly prone to circumvention and evasion”.
While countries have until the middle of 2017 to set up their central registers, Brussels is now calling for the work to be completed by the end of the year.
However, the rules on how these registers can be accessed have also come in for criticism from tax campaigners as being open to interpretation.
While they will be fully accessible to tax authorities, members of the public only have a right to examine them if they can demonstrate a “legitimate interest,” for example if they are an investigative journalist.
Panama Papers Leak
The fallout from the data leak revealing widespread use of offshore financial centres by the rich and powerful is spreading
Even these rules do not apply to trusts — a concession won by the UK which argued the role of trusts in managing issues around, for instance, inheritance would mean public access would allow unwarranted intrusion into families’ privacy.
While the UK, along with Denmark, the Netherlands and Slovenia, is committed to making information on companies fully public, Germany has indicated that public access will be limited to “relevant specialist non-governmental organisations and specialist journalists”.
In addition to toughening the transparency rules for shell companies and trusts, Ms Jourova also said she would reinforce other EU rules to tackle money laundering, including having better co-ordination of asset freezes across the bloc.
“I will propose to make cross-border confiscation and freezing of these assets more effective so criminals can no longer hide their assets abroad,” she said.