Norway to aid Greek tax collectors

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Beleaguered Greeks may soon have another force to reckon with: Norwegian tax collectors. With rampant tax evasion blamed for a major part of Greece’s astonishing debt, officials from both the European Union and the Greek government are reportedly calling on Norway for help.

A badly tarnished tax system shares the blame for the Greek debt crisis, and Norwegian tax collectors are being called upon to help put better systems in place. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

“We’re in dialogue with the EU Commission and Greece, to see whether Norway can help improve the Greek state’s apparatus,” Erik Lahnstein, state secretary in Norway’s foreign ministry, told newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday.

Norway’s reputation for a transparent economy and a tough but presumably fair tax system has prompted the call for help. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou asked the EU last summer for assistance in reforming the Greek state administration. The EU responded by creating a group of experts and now the EU Commission has asked Norway for help, even though Norway is not a member of the EU.

Lahnstein said that tax collection is the area where Norway probably has the most expertise. The Norwegian tax system has funded an extensive social welfare system for years and paying taxes is generally viewed as more of a civic duty in Norway than an onerous burden. It’s all part of the fellesskap (fellowship, common interests) that many Norwegians emphasize, not least the ruling Labour Party-led government.

Some sense of fellesskap seems badly needed in Greece, where an acute lack of tax revenues has contributed to the country’s debt crisis. Wealthy shipowners and others have been accused of avoiding or evading tax payment and an underground economy reportedly has long thrived in Greece, which remains the only country in the EU where large financial transactions are not registered. Cash is widely used, with no records of sales or purchases, and that’s resulted in enormous revenue losses for the national treasury.

“The Greek state administration doesn’t function in central areas, including tax collection,” Lahnstein told Aftenposten. “Greece has a formidable problem.” Norwegian tax collection experts are expected to travel to Greece to help create a better and more efficient system for the Greek government.

It won’t be easy, especially since Greek tax collectors have a history of resisting reform. Greece has remained on the verge of bankruptcy and one EU official said the challenges are enormous, suggesting Norwegian officials would have a huge job on their hands to change the system. Their costs would be covered by the EU Commission, though, and Norway seems willing to assist.

“They’ve asked for our help,” Lahnstein said. “The initiative from Papandreou is constructive, and there’s reason to praise the Greeks for actually wanting to clean up their system.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund