Financial fraud was the subject matter at a conference held in the European Parliament in Brussels on Thursday 9 November. In light of the recent revelations of the 'Paradise Papers' on the vast use of off-shore companies in tax havens by the wealthiest in societies for the purpose of tax evasion, the conference paid particular attention to recent large-scale international cases of financial fraud and embezzlement.
The conference was attended by several MEPs, journalists and representatives from NGOs and associations. The speaker panel consisted of Honorary MEP Frank Schalba-Hoth, economist Björn Hultin, journalist Gary Cartwright and journalist Jarosław Jakimczy.
Hultin highlighted “the sheer size and scope of many recent cases of financial fraud, amounting in some instances to several billion euro, which can have severe consequences and endanger not only a few individuals or institutions, but also put whole economies and societies at risk as these actions deprive governments of public money and resources.”
Schwalba-Hoth commented on the opportunism of criminal fraudsters in many post-soviet countries and their use of complex secretive structures in offshore companies to embezzle and launder stolen money, using the same schemes revealed in the paradise papers by large corporations to hide assets for tax evasion purposes.
In particular, one of the largest financial fraud cases in history was brought up and discussed during the conference, relating to the embezzlement and laundering of up to $10 Billion by Kazakh businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov. Ablyazov currently resides in France where he fled after British courts sentenced him to prison in 2012 and demanded the recovery of more than $4.5 Billion back to Kazakh BTA Bank. Journalist Gary Cartwright explained in detail the process and timeline of how Ablyazov is believed to have undertaken the theft. It included, amongst others, the use of a vast number of shell companies set up in off-shore tax havens, who received large scale loans for fictional property and business deals.
During the conference, journalist Jakimczy also discussed an ongoing investigation into a NGO called Open Dialogue Foundation. The organization, which was set up in Poland and has an office in Brussels, is among others, advocating for the defence of Ablyazov on political persecution grounds. However, the organization is believed to at the same time also have been funded, among others, by money donated from the network of companies owned by Ablyazov. “Several companies that have donated to the NGO’s activities are flagged and sanctioned by the West,” Jakimzcik argued. Gary Cartwright, who has followed the case closely, said: “There are more questions than answers related to the funding of ODF.”
In the audience, Henri Malosse, former president of the European Economic and Social Committee called for the EU to set up better mechanisms to trace the funding of Brussels based NGOs, especially those who abuse the system. He also criticized the uneven playing field whereby large corporations and high-net worth individuals use secretive schemes to channel money to off-shore tax havens.
Mukhtar Abylazov was released from prison by French authorities in December 2016. Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have requested that he is extradited. Meanwhile, Ablyazov is believed to be asking for asylum in Belgium or other countries in the EU. Schwalba-Hoth said that he “did not find it likely that Belgian authorities would grant Abylazov asylum”. And Cartwright argued that Ablyazov and other financial fraud fugitives should be brought to justice and also highlighted the importance of a fair and balanced trial and process. In the meantime, BTA Bank is still trying to recover the several billion euro that are believed to remain hidden in various off-shore tax havens.
Samskip launches direct container services between Amsterdam and Ireland
Samskip has ramped up its shortsea container connections between Ireland and North Continental Europe by introducing a new dedicated service link into Amsterdam. The weekly connection will mean Irish imports can avoid post-Brexit hassles applying to goods received via UK-based distributors, while exports will benefit from greater reach into EU markets in the northern Netherlands, Germany and beyond.
Launching on 25 January, the fixed day service departs from the TMA Terminal Amsterdam on Monday evenings for arrival in Dublin on Wednesday and a weekend return to Amsterdam. This complements Samskip’s existing Rotterdam-Ireland shortsea services by offering rail, barge and road customers in the Netherlands a new Monday night departure to Ireland.
Thijs Goumans, Head of Ireland Trade, Samskip, said that the service launch came at a time when importers and exporters in Ireland-mainland Europe trades continue to weigh up options as the consequences of Brexit for supply chain management became clear.
“The Ireland-North Continent freight market is in a dynamic phase, and fixed day container services to/from Amsterdam provide the certainty on which supply chain managers serving the Dutch and German markets can base business growth,” he said. Subject to initial moves, Samskip would consider calls to connect other ports in Ireland to Amsterdam direct.
“Shortsea container services can once more prove themselves more than a match for ro-ro, particularly for products previously shipped to distributors in the UK then redistributed across the Irish Sea,” said Richard Archer, Regional Director, Samskip Multimodal. “Amsterdam is a high-performance port connecting straight into the hinterland area and the entire Samskip Ireland team is delighted by this new commitment to pan-European transport.”
Koen Overtoom, CEO Port of Amsterdam, commented: “We are very pleased with this expansion of the port’s short sea network. It underlines the strength of the services Samskip and TMA Logistics offer, as well as our strategic position. Ireland is a key market, and in these rapidly changing times a direct link presents tremendous opportunities. We will continue to work with TMA, Samskip and international partners to make this service a lasting success.”
Michael van Toledo, General Manager TMA Amsterdam, said Samskip’s rail links to Duisburg and TMA’s congestion-free road access offered a platform for growth in FMCG volumes into Ireland and pharma and dairy exports moving the other way. “The service could have been custom-made for our ambitions to grow Amsterdam as a hub for shortsea container business,” he said. “It targets the greater appetite for direct North Continent services to Ireland post-Brexit, with TMA’s cross-docking winning over trailer operators in markets further south.”
European Commission launches New European Bauhaus
The European Commission launched the design phase of the New European Bauhaus initiative (21 January). The New European Bauhaus aims to combine design, sustainability, accessibility, affordability and investment in order to help deliver the European Green Deal.
The goal of the design phase is to use a co-creation process to shape the concept by exploring ideas, identifying the most urgent needs and challenges, and to connect interested parties. As one element of the design phase, this spring, the Commission will launch, the first edition of the New European Bauhaus prize.
This design phase will lead to the opening of calls for proposals in autumn this year to bring to life New European Bauhaus ideas in at least five places in the EU, through the use of EU funds at the national and regional level.
European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said: "The New European Bauhaus is a project of hope to explore how we live better together after the pandemic. It is about matching sustainability with style, to bring the European Green Deal closer to people's minds and homes. We need all creative minds: designers, artists, scientists, architects and citizens, to make the New European Bauhaus a success.”
Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth said: “With the New European Bauhaus our ambition is to develop an innovative framework to support, facilitate and accelerate the green transformation by combining sustainability and aesthetics. By being a bridge between the world of art and culture on one side and the world of science and technology on the other, we will make sure to involve society as a whole: our artists, our students, our architects, our engineers, our academia, our innovators. It will kick-off a systemic change.”
The EU has been setting standards for sustainable buildings and supporting projects to improve green living for many years. The latest action is an attempt to bring these ideas closer to EU’s citizens.
Coming up in plenary: Vaccines, EU-US relations and Portuguese presidency
COVID-19 vaccines in the EU, relations with the US and the priorities of the new Council presidency will be discussed at the first plenary session of 2021.
MEPs will hold a debate on Tuesday morning (19 January) on the need for more clarity and transparency concerning vaccine contracts and the EU’s decision-making process regarding COVID-19 vaccines.
With Joe Biden taking over as president of the United States on 20 January, MEPs are hopeful for a new chapter in EU-US relations. On Wednesday morning (20 January), Parliament will debate areas where the two partners can strengthen their collaboration in the future.
Portugal took over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on 1 January. Portuguese prime minister António Costa will address MEPs on his country’s priorities on Wednesday morning.
Right to disconnect
The current pandemic has meant that one in three Europeans are now working from home. In a vote on Thursday (21 January), Parliament is likely to call on the Commission to make “the right to disconnect” a legal entitlement in the EU. MEPs say workers, when off work, should not feel obliged to answer work-related calls, emails and messages.
Impact of COVID-19
On Wednesday afternoon, MEPs will quiz Council and Commission representatives on the measures the EU is taking to deal with the social and employment effects of the COVID-19 crisis.
MEPs are also set to debate and vote on how to govern the use of artificial intelligence (AI) specifically within the military and public domains. They are expected to insist on respect for human rights when using AI technologies in mass surveillance.
On Thursday, the Parliament will debate the EU’s strategy for gender equality as well as how Covid-19 has impacted women’s rights and how to include women in the digital economy.
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