Greek Shipowners: The Aegean Pirates

When it comes to self-professed patriots and breast-beaters for the Greek flag, few can compete with the ultra-rich tycoons of Greece's shipping industry.

When it comes to self-professed patriots and breast-beaters for the Greek flag, few can compete with the ultra-rich tycoons of Greece’s shipping industry, the world’s biggest, who control some 18 percent of all the ships at sea.

Those usually fly Flags of Convenience, which is a code phrase to mean shipping companies are trying to avoid paying taxes in their own countries instead of by showing the symbol of other countries.

In that, nobody beats the Greek magnates, the Pirates of the Aegean, who’d put up a Swastika on a tanker if they could save a few euros – money that goes into their well-lined and deep pockets instead of to government coffers to be used to help offset a crushing economic crisis.

That which isn’t stolen or siphoned off by politicians could even perhaps wind up helping the poor or people buried by an avalanche of pay cuts, tax hikes, and slashed pensions imposed by successive governments on the orders of international lenders.

The Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank  (EU-IMF-ECB) is putting up $325 billion in two bailouts to keep the Greek economy from collapsing.

It was put in that position by generations of New Democracy Capitalists and PASOK Anti-Socialist governments hiring hundreds of thousands of needless workers in return for votes, and politicians using the state treasury as a personal ATM to buy yachts, luxury cars, vacation homes and squirrel the rest away in secret foreign bank accounts so they, too, wouldn’t have to pay taxes.

That has meant that the only people who do pay are workers, pensioners and the poor who have money deducted from their checks – much of which has also been stolen and means they won’t be getting what they should in lump sums, which they earned, when they retire.

You can bet retired politicians will get everything because that’s how it is in Greece, although many in the Diaspora just want to hear that the homeland of their heritage is a paradigm of decency and democracy and don’t like critical articles.

While Greece’s economic crisis has created record unemployment and deep poverty, its shipowners have thrived and prospered. Now the Captains of Industry are fighting a plan by the government to triple a capacity tax on its vessels.

That comes after the owners agreed last year to a voluntary doubling amidst complaints it was ducking obligations to the country, including hiding its ships behind foreign flags to avoid paying taxes.

Union of Greek Shipowners head Theodoros Veniamis said the group considers unconstitutional a Finance Ministry tax initiative last December that provided for a 300 percent increase in the capacity tax and that all Greek-owned vessels – regardless of which flag it was flying – would be subject to the assessment.

Almost 3,000 ships, representing the vast majority of the Greek-owned fleet in terms of capacity, had been committed to the deal to voluntarily pay a doubled tax, he said.

But even that meant they would pay only between 75-140 million euros ($101.76-$190 million) over the next three years, an infinitesimal amount that critics said is mostly symbolic given the multi-billion euro size of the industry.

Shipowners have warned previously they could move to other countries if the government tried to tax them. They didn’t say some of them really already have and you just have to check New York to find them.

Veniamis said the government, instead of taxing the industry, should find ways to attract more vessels or discuss other ideas that would be mutually acceptable, although he didn’t say what they were and the shipowners have been reluctant to pay any taxes at all.

The shipowners argue that shipping produces a benefit to Greece of 13.5 billion euros ($18.32 billion) annually, about 7.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) through the likes of lubricants for Greek vessels and vendors providing goods and services to the vessels.

If that argument were any weaker it would be even worse than Alex Rodriguez’s claim he hasn’t steroids since 2004, although since then – until his pending one-year suspension – he’s hit 273 and this guy ain’t Josh Gibson so it wasn’t the ball that was juiced.

But since Greek shipowners are in such a volunteering mood, here’s how they can put their money where their mouths are if they really want to help the land they claim to love so much they won’t put the Greek flag on their ships:

  • ·Follow the lead of the Onassis Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and start funding programs with money that bypasses the government and goes directly to people who really need it.
  • ·Build some municipal swimming pools (they can even put their names on them, perhaps the Veniamis Pool) so that poor Greek kids don’ swelter in the summer while the rich are on their yachts or the islands cooling themselves from the hard task of counting money
  • ·Fund some of the soup kitchens being paid for by the Greek Orthodox Church, the City of Athens and NGO’s who need help
  • ·Buy medical equipment and supplies for hospitals
  • ·Buy oil for schools, and while they’re at it, maybe pay for painting some of them

If they’re not willing to do any of that, let’s run up the Jolly Roger and board them. Take no prisoners.