Greek shipowners: tax scrutiny will open ‘Pandora’s box’ in EU

A two Euro coin in front of the Acropolis, Greece

A two Euro coin in front of the Acropolis, Greece [(Christian Maeder)]

Greece’s top shipping lobby on Friday (10 June) warned that EU scrutiny of their tax concessions would open a ‘Pandora’s box’ of revelations concerning other states, with harmful consequences all around.

“If we enter a full investigation and consultation begins… on what happens in European shipping, it would open a Pandora’s box, not for Greece but for other countries,” Theodore Veniamis, head of the Greek union of shipowners, told a news conference.

Back in 2012, the European Commission asked Greece to clarify the workings of its tax system for the shipping industry, and European Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc told reporters on Friday it would likely become a full investigation.

“Tonnage tax is crucial to keep the EU flag competitive internationally,” said Bulc.

The commission wanted to ensure “proper application of guidelines” and to “limit it to genuine shipping business”, she said.

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Last week, Greece had to deal with new austerity measures and a Eurostat study invalidated the IMF’s doomsday scenario. A number of MEPs now call upon European leaders to rethink the issue of debt and review the reforms being imposed on Greece.

Brussels suspects the current taxation system, which grants favourable treatment to shipowners, is being extended to also benefit shipping company shareholders and brokers.

Veniamis said the EU was drawing the “wrong conclusions” and could “unsettle” the shipowners’ presence in Greece.

“There is no competition kink between European maritime nations,” he said.

“We haven’t seen any European shipowners coming to Greece’s (presumed tax) paradise.

Must remain competitive

Greek shipowners are leaders in their sector internationally, but only about a third of their fleet sails under the Greek flag.

“We must remain competitive towards Asian shipowners who are slowly spreading across the world,” Veniamis said.

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Eurozone finance ministers reached a vital deal with Greece in the early hours today (25 May) to start debt relief for Athens as demanded by the International Monetary Fund, and to unlock €10.3 billion in bailout cash.

The tax is levied on the tonnage a ship carries in place of a tax on the shippers’ profits, reportedly to the great advantage of Greece’s shippers and undercutting state income from one of the country’s prized economic assets.

The system was set up in 1953 when the Greek shipping industry, one of the largest in the world, was rebuilding after World War II.

Greek press reports have said that the commission request was driven by pressure from Germany whose shippers are losing market share.

The commission denied that was the case, saying it was part of an investigation to ensure that competition rules on the shipping industry were being respected across Europe.

Veniamis said Greek shipowners would not “snitch” on other countries employing “labyrinthine laws and tricks” to benefit their own shipowners.

But he wondered why similar investigations had failed to make headway in Germany and the Netherlands.

“If this thing turns sour, we bear no responsibility,” he said.

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