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Lax on Tax
January/February 2012


"So, you've crossed over to the dark side," my friend remarked with a sneer, and for a moment I thought he was referring to the delicate tan I was sporting, which clashed somewhat provocatively with the pale skies of a wintry Berlin afternoon. "Why would one go to the British Virgin Islands and support a tax haven thousands of miles away?" Here we go again, I thought to myself as I waited for him to unleash the familiar marriage of eco-consciousness, europhilia and Protestant concern for an individual's duty to support the nation state, which has become fashionable among many Germans of my generation. But he went further: "A place like that epitomises all the evils of our time," my friend continued ecstatically, "it's beyond postcolonial! Just take the offshore businesses."

Now, it has to be said that Germans have a complicated relationship with anything with a whiff of empire about it. Some are, at least culturally, closet colonialists, but the majority (including more conservative types) have considered that chapter of history a particularly grim one, especially since the Falklands War. At the time, it was virtually impossible to find someone among the intelligentsia who supported Thatcher's actions.

The word "colonies" has a strangely foreign, if not distant ring to German ears, as if belonging to a past that one longs for but isn't quite allowed to indulge in. One reason is that colonialism in Africa, the Pacific and China came relatively late to the German nation state and didn't prove particularly successful, but the real issue at stake — without wanting to sound too Freudian — is a discomfort when encountering the thin line between executing power and using it as suppression. This sentiment (if there is such a thing as a collective sentiment, as cultural theorists claim) has been put to the test in the ongoing euro crisis with Germany in the spotlight.

Considering this, my friend's words didn't seem too strange. The thought of a new kind of colonialism had occurred to me too when, a few weeks before our meeting, I landed on the aptly named Beef Island. The scenery was pure Dr No, all turquoise waters and white beaches with the occasional propeller plane taking off over a lush field of seagrapes or mango trees. With some quaint colonial quirks — such as stubbornly continuing to drive on the left or the rather grand sounding but dismal looking Queen Elizabeth bridge that connects Beef Island with the main one, Tortola — it seemed like the perfect setting for dodgy business. The peculiar mix of drop-outs and expatriates gulping down their beers as soon as the sun set while complaining about the locals forever being "on island time", that is slow and at times snobbish when dealing with expats, added to the atmosphere of languid aggression. The islands make up one of the largest offshore corporate domiciles in the world — no wonder, since corporations can be registered within a few working days, offering the utmost privacy for the owners and shareholders. The main appeal however is, as one company put it bluntly: "According to BVI Business Companies Act of 2004, the BVI business company is exempted from all taxes."

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