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European tax havens

Nicolas Martin / sadApril 17, 2013

Forget about the Bahamas, Panama, Cayman Islands, or Fiji. If you want to avoid paying taxes and have no problem with dicey business practices, Europe has a lot to offer.

Syymbolic picture for tax havens
Image: Fotolia/Trueffelpix

Europe is far from innocent in the international offshore tax evasion industry, as the Tax Justice Network (TJN) recently demonstrated. Many European countries, with their stable infrastructure and professional personnel, provide fertile ground for businesses or individuals to evade taxes. There are more than a few gaps that need to be filled in Europe, according to Markus Meinzer of the TJN. He helped paint a picture of who's who among European tax havens.

Markus Meinzer vom Netzwerk Steuergerechtigkeit.
Markus Meinzer sees more than a few loopholes that need to be closedImage: privat


The independent mini-state of Andorra in the Pyrenees, which is not a part of the European Union, offers a secretive place for those in neighboring countries to stash their money. Particularly attractive is the personal service offered by banking advisers there. It's also easy for Spaniards and French to simply drive there to deposit cash. Afterwards, one can always tank up and buy cigarettes there - tax-free, of course.


As a country sharing borders with Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Italy, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, Austria draws foreign capital by promising secrecy to account holders. It caters especially to Europe's German-speaking population, Meinzer said. But he also said that he knows of Argentines who, for example, combine investing in Austrian bonds with the advantages of bank secrecy. Due precisely to the lack of financial transparency and its geographic location, Austria has also attracted wealth from Arab world dictators for decades.

Channel Islands

The British Channel Islands Jersey, Guernsey and Sark are home to hundreds of financial institutions and insurance companies drawn to their simple and low taxes. While Jersey probably "hides the most dirty business," according to Meinzer, Guernsey is the most innovative.

Small boats at St Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands, UK Keine Weitergabe an Drittverwerter.
Guernsey is a safe haven for dubious capital dealingsImage: picture alliance /Jeremy Lightfoot/Robert Harding

With its so-called self-protected companies, an apparent single company is organized into cells with protective legal walls between them. And on Sark, according to British newspaper The Guardian, there are 24 companies registered for each of the approximately 600 inhabitants.


Cyprus is the perfect example of what can go wrong with depending on such dubious business models. It was particularly oriented toward former Soviet countries, and acted as a hub for them. Transactions over letterbox companies brought money into Cyprus, then back to countries like Russia - thus avoiding Russian tax authorities. But since the Cyprus bailout , in part by the EU, the Mediterranean island will have to come up with a new business model.


England, with London, represents one of the largest hubs for tax evasion and capital flight. Meinzer described London as "the mother of all tax havens" since the zone, which does not answer to the crown, has developed a network that continues to bring money back to the capital of the former empire. Money flows from there to British Channel Islands, such as Guernsey, Jersey or to the Isle of Man, then overseas to British territories in the Caribbean, such as the Cayman or Virgin Islands - or in Europe, to Gibraltar. London, is the seat of many dubious "letterbox companies," which only exist on the Internet.


Germany protects the data of foreign investors, who also don't have to pay taxes on interest.

Frankfurt skyline Foto: Frank Rumpenhorst dpa/lhe
Frankfurt is a great place for foreign investors to earn tax-free interestImage: picture-alliance /dpa

Only Germans, or foreigners resident in Germany, have to actually shell out a flat rate withholding tax on interest income, Meinzer said.

Information on such yields also rarely flows out of Germany, he added: "Foreign investors with German accounts are protected with a certain degree of anonymity."

That's why Germany ranks ninth in the world for financial secrecy, according to TJN.


At the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar has specialized in allowing such letterbox companies, called "trusts." The structure of such trusts means there is no real owner of the company. They are often used to add a layer of secrecy to letterbox companies, Meinzer said, which is particularly good for money laundering.

Meinzer cited insider information in calling it "the dirty end of the spectrum" for bringing money back into financial markets. The presence of many gambling casinos there also comes into play.


It's called the "double Irish" in the financial world: A company founds two subsidiaries in Ireland with its business tax rate of 12.5 percent. Then, one claims to be based in a different tax haven. (Comparable taxes in the United States, for example, are around 35 percent.)

While the one company does business in Europe, it pays the other patent fees. Profits vanish, as costs and income equal out on the balance sheet.

Glengarriff, Beara Peninsula, County Cork, Ireland
Ireland's idyllic landscape belies its savvy financial sectorImage: picture alliance/Bildagentur-online/DP

This is completely legal in Ireland, and therefore an optimal location for companies such as Google, Apple or Amazon.

Although other countries like the Netherlands offer similar models, Meinzer said the difference is that people do actually work in Ireland, which at least creates some jobs and a bit of growth in the country.

Isle of Man

Taxes are kind of an afterthought on this island between England, Scotland and Ireland. Inheritances and capital gains aren't taxed at all, while the highest level of taxation lies at 20 percent. Corporate tax is nonexistent. It's especially loved as a hidey-hole for British millionaires.


Luxembourg is the second-largest financial hub in Europe, after London. Innumerable investors and around 150 different banks enjoy a lenient tax framework in Europe's stocks and bonds center. Luxembourg's status as an EU member makes it particularly attractive for European companies and the international market, Meinzer explained. "If I want to get around German laws, for example, I could go through Luxembourg," Meinzer said, adding that 40 German banks do business there.


With its low tax rates, Malta, like Cyprus, has long drawn foreign capital. Although corporate taxes are around 35 percent, companies can get most of that refunded.

Valetta, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Malta, Mediterranean, Europe Keine Weitergabe an Drittverwerter.
Malta's capital Valetta offers a beautiful climate - for investorsImage: picture alliance /Robert Harding

It's a favorite among German companies, which earn a higher profit if based on Malta. Meinzer said that while it's clearly a tax paradise for companies, it's not clear if that's also the case for individuals.


The Principality of Monaco continues to be home to the rich and famous, being surrounded by France. Millionaires happily set themselves up there due to the fact that they pay no income or inheritance taxes. The city-state also does not prosecute financial crimes committed abroad. Businesses, however, must pay taxes there - at rates of around 33 percent. France, though it doesn't play an active role, lends a protective hand, Meinzer said.


What Luxembourg is for private investors, the Netherlands is for large corporations. Business taxes are incredibly low, with many tax advantages for interest and licensing income.

Blick in die Lagerhalle einer Gouda-Käserei in der niederländischen Stadt Gouda, in der die Laibe reifen (Foto vom 14.3.2002). Die Bundesrepublik ist für niederländische Agrarprodukte der bedeutendste Absatzmarkt. Im Jahr 1997 wurden z.B. auf dem deutschen Markt 231000 Tonnen Käse im Wert von 1,8 Milliarden DM verkauft. Mit einem Anteil von 55 Prozent an der Gesamtmenge stand der Gouda an der Spitze des Käseverkaufs.
The Netherlands is more than just cheeseImage: picture-alliance/dpa

With the "Dutch sandwich," a parent company has a subsidiary in the Netherlands, which it uses as a cheap tax base to develop its European business.


Although there are supposedly no more completely anonymous bank accounts in Switzerland (and neighboring Liechtenstein), it continues to draw large sums of money due to its strict banking secrecy. Considering the volume of money in Switzerland, it made first place on the TJN's Financial Secrecy Index.