June 17, 2019

Greece Tax Scandal Shifts Focus From Collection Problem

Mr. Papaconstantinou, in turn, hinted darkly that he was the victim of a plot masking malfeasance at higher levels.

While the firestorm may have made for political theater of a sort, it has diverted attention from a much bigger problem: Greece, its foreign lenders say, has fallen woefully short of its tax collection targets and is still not moving hard enough to tackle widespread tax evasion — long tolerated, particularly among the country’s richest citizens.

Greek officials agreed to the targets as part of an international lending pact last year, but there is no penalty for missing them. In recent weeks, however, two reports by Greece’s foreign lenders have found that Athens pulled in less than half of the additional tax income that it expected last year and performed fewer than half of the expected audits.

One report said that Athens had brought in a little less than $1.3 billion in additional taxes of the $2.6 billion it had hoped to collect in 2012. Only 88 major taxpayers, including corporations, were the subject of full-scope audits, well below a target of 300, the report said, while just 467 audits of high-wealth individuals were completed, compared with a goal of 1,300.

The fragile, three-party coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras continues to vow it will crack down on corruption and tax evasion, but a blunt assessment last month by a task force of Greece’s foreign lenders said, “These changes have not yet been reflected in results in terms of improved tax inspection and collection.” Analysts say the failure to pursue tax evaders aggressively is deepening social tensions. “It’s a weak government with very difficult work to do, and this is very, very bad for the morale of the people,” said Nikos Xydakis, a political columnist for Kathimerini, a daily newspaper. “This year will be hell for the middle-class people. And the rich people are untouchable. This is very bad.”

In a separate report, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund said they were concerned that the “authorities are falling idle and that the drive to fight tax evasion by the very wealthy and the free professions is at risk of weakening.”

The report added that total unpaid taxes amounted to nearly $70 billion, about 25 percent of Greece’s gross domestic product. But only about 15 percent to 20 percent of the amount is actually collectible, either because the statute of limitations has run out or the scofflaws do not have the money.

It pressed Greece to focus on the cases most likely to produce real revenues, especially in vocations where tax evasion has become pernicious. “Doctors and lawyers are a good place to start,” it said.

Critics, especially the leftist party Syriza, which leads in opinion polls, say the government has not done enough to stop corruption because its members are tied to the country’s business elite and do not want to jeopardize their political careers.

“The problem is not simply tax evasion among the rich,” said Zoe Konstantopoulou, a member of Parliament from Syriza who serves on a panel investigating the so-called Lagarde list, a compilation of more than 2,000 Greeks with accounts in a Swiss branch of HSBC that had been sent to Mr. Papaconstantinou in 2010 by Christine Lagarde, then the finance minister of France. “The problem is tax evasion among the rich with the complicity and the aiding and abetting of those who govern.”

While Greece received a badly needed $45 billion in aid last month to help it avoid defaulting on its debts, critics say that unless Athens can more forcefully tap the billions it is owed in taxes, it will never pay off its debts, even if its moribund economy eventually starts to recover.

A dysfunctional bureaucracy weakened by budget cuts, two destabilizing rounds of elections last spring and an economy decimated by austerity have hampered tax collections further. But a thicket of regulations and a culture of resistance also fuel a shadow economy that includes an estimated 25 percent of economic activity.

Liz Alderman reported from Paris, and Rachel Donadio from Rome. Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/world/europe/greece-tax-scandal-shifts-focus-from-collection-problem.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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