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German tax collectors volunteer for Greek duty

Finance ministers in two German states have offered to send in officials to help with tax collection in Greece, but it is unclear whether such assistance would be welcomed

More than 160 German tax collectors have volunteered for possible assignments in Greece to help the struggling Mediterranean country gather tax more efficiently, the finance ministry said in Berlin at the weekend.The offer risks fuelling resentment among Greeks who have already reacted angrily to earlier German calls for the appointment of a “budget commissioner” to monitor the Greek government’s financial management.

German media published news of the possible tax advice mission as the German parliament is due to vote on whether to endorse a new €130bn (£110bn) bailout package for Greece.

International lenders say the public debt burden that forced Greece to seek a bailout two years ago has burgeoned partly because many Greeks evade taxes.

The German government says it wants to help Greece develop a modern tax administration and has started recruiting volunteers. More than 160 German tax officials with English language skills have signed up and about a dozen also speak Greek, a spokesman for the finance ministry said.

Wirtschaftswoche magazine quoted finance ministers in two states, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and Hesse, saying they were ready to send German tax officials to Greece even though it was unclear whether such assistance would be welcomed.

“Greece’s problems today are even worse than the problems faced with former East Germany in 1990,” said Norbert Walter-Borjans, NRW finance minister, referring to the period after German unity when west German tax officials went to the ex-Communist east of the country to help improve tax collection.

“There was resistance then among some eastern Germans against western (tax collectors) but that’s nothing compared to the reservations Greeks will have against Germans,” he added.

German criticism has reopened wounds in Greece dating back to the second world war. Protesters in Athens burned a German flag earlier this month and Greek newspapers have portrayed German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform.

‘Bottomless pit’

The Germany finance ministry spokesman said the preparations for a tax advice mission were being made under the auspices of the European Union and International Monetary Fund. He said it was unclear when or if the German civil servants would be deployed.

Germans, who are making the largest financial contribution to the eurozone bailout for Greece, are growing increasingly impatient with what finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble described as a “bottomless pit” in Greece.

At the same time, there is a growing awareness in Germany, Europe’s leading economy, that its own prosperity is at risk as the debt crisis sucks in other countries and stifles demand within the currency bloc for German exports.

But a recent flurry of acrimonious exchanges between Athens and Berlin reflect deepening doubts among mainly northern members of the 17-nation eurozone about Greece’s ability and willingness to overhaul its economy to satisfy lenders’ demands.

Schäuble and other German government leaders have repeatedly offered to help Athens improve tax collection and he has complained the offers have not been accepted.

A report by the European Union’s task force in November said that Greece has €60bn in unpaid taxes due to tax avoidance and lack of compliance – an amount equal to around 25% of Greek gross domestic product (GDP).

Last month the Greek government published a list of 4,000 top tax dodgers including a famous singer and basketball star as part of a new policy to get evaders to pay up.

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