Bankers, Bosses, Tax Men and Spies

If the right honourable John Le Carré had written this gripping tale about bank secrecy, data theft, secret lists being handed over after hefty payments, undercover agents and spies hunting down tax dogers .... well, let's put it this way: Some of us would have snickered that it might well be entertaining, but it's a little far-fetched ....

If you've followed the headlines out of Germany and Liechtenstein over the past few weeks, you know by now that this tale -- however gripping and far-fetched it might sound -- is in fact reality.

As there are so many interesting, bizarre and just plain juicy components and actors in this plot, I shall bring it to you in episodes. Here's the first installment of what I'm calling Bankers, Bosses, Tax Men and Spies:

Find FL! (no, not Florida -- Fürstentum Liechtenstein)

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Find it on the map first: It sits snug in a small valley in the Alps, enveloped by Austria to the east and Switzerland to the west.

OK, you're halfway there. At least you know where it is. Now find out how to get to the country's capital, Vaduz.

Plane? - Try again. No airport.

Train? - Nope. No train stations either.

Bus or car is your only option.

In our case, it was a case of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" -- Flight to Zürich, hop on a train to Sargans or Buchs (you have to change trains at least once on the way) and from there haul your suitcase onto the "Liechtenstein Post," the overland bus that finally, leisurely rolls you into the Principality of Liechtenstein.

Speaking of which - just a few facts and figures:

Covering an area of just 160 square kilometers, Liechtenstein is one of the world's smallest independent states. Two-thirds of the country is mountainous. Despite its small size, Liechtenstein is still big enough to be geographically subdivided into the Oberland containing the former earldom of Vaduz and the Unterland on what used to be the Schellenberg dominion.

Liechtenstein has a population of about 33,000, of which over a third are foreign nationals, most of them Swiss, Austrian or German. Official language is German, with an Alemannic dialect used in everyday life. Around 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and around 7 percent Protestant.

According to the country's constitution, Liechtenstein is a "constitutional hereditary monarchy based on democratic and parliamentary rule." State power is invested in the prince and the people. Prince Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein has been head of state of the Principality's eleven local government districts since 1989. His father, Prince Franz Josef II, appointed him deputy in 1984 and entrusted him with the matters of government. To this day, the royal family resides in the castle overlooking Vaduz (which has around 5,000 inhabitants).

Now, the capital Vaduz might have a mere 5,000 citizens, but the small town nestled by the foot of the castle with the same name is still a reputable international investment centre and a tax haven for many a high earner around Europe -- much to the chagrin of German (and other) tax authorities, I daresay. Liechtenstein's status as a tax oasis has become a big bone of contention between the German and Liechtenstein governments (see next episode in this blog novela).

'Clean' Financial Centre

Liechtenstein has worked hard at building a reputation as a "clean" financial centre. A series of laws to clamp down on money laundering have been introduced, a law to reform the now-much-snickered-at trust fund framework has been brought underway.

But now this! The whole of Liechtenstein is under siege -- by German and other journalists, for starters. The tiny nation has been battered and bruised by scathing statements from German politicians and -- not surprisingly, maybe -- is feeling somewhat victimised by the ruthless, arrogant Germans.

Maybe in a country where every second job directly depends on the banking industry, and where the average per-capital income is twice as high as that of the average German, and where nobody has to read headlines about strikes, zero-rounds on wages and job cuts -- maybe in such a country there is no real understanding of the outrage in Germany these days, where citizens are fuming about top managers dodging taxes and, by extension, part of their responsibility to Germany.

On the one hand, we have this dreamy, picturesque little country with friendly people and an affinity for the rich and beautiful. On the other hand, there are outraged German politicians calling for a "boycott and shunning" of Liechtenstein if it doesn't close its tax loopholes.

On the one hand, you have the criminal offence of tax fraud, which can get you a prison sentence of up to ten years!

And on the other hand, you have the Principality of Liechtenstein, where tax offenses aren't criminal cases as all.

Want to learn more? Well, read on!

Questions? Comments? Send an email!