The EU and its allies have rallied to support Ukraine, but without a robust system of transparent company and beneficial ownership data, detecting hidden Russian wealth is difficult, given that many use family members and networks of shell companies to conceal their assets.
Addressing the importance of transparent beneficial ownership, Maira Martini of Transparency International stated “the Russian invasion of Ukraine must serve as a bitter wake-up call to Member States. It is time EU countries urgently fast-track key improvements to the Union’s beneficial ownership transparency framework. Information on the real owners of companies should be available for free, without restrictions and in open data format. This will enable civil society, journalists and law enforcement to track assets of Russian kleptocrats and hold them to account.”
Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info, underscored the role of civil society and investigative journalists in using this data, stating that “time and time again journalists and anti-corruption activists have proved their ability to track illicit wealth and expose hidden assets. Yet, without access to complete company and beneficial ownership data, their efforts are severely hampered. We are concerned that the EU has repeatedly promised openness but is not delivering on it in practice.”
Chris Taggart of Opencorporates expressed concern on the delays at the EU level in the implementation of the 2019 Open Data Directive, which promised to make company registers and company ownership available to all as open data: “This would provide a more transparent and trusted business environment and provide a hostile environment for those who used opacity to hide dirty money. Nearly 3 years later, it still hasn’t been implemented, and governments are playing catchup to track the money behind the Putin regime. The EU needs to act now to deliver on its promises and help identify the regime’s money before it flees Europe in some overseas haven.”
Jesse Renema of Open State Foundation argues that “with the Pandora, Open Lux and Panama Papers civil society has shown what it can achieve in exposing corruption, tax evasion and money laundering with limited beneficial ownership transparency. With such a proven track record and such structural and large-scale abuse of trust, shell companies and other shady constructions, the public should have full access to company and beneficial ownership data. This is not the case; the EU needs to act now and make this happen!”
The EU has shown that strength is in solidarity. It is time that the EU opens up company ownership registers, allowing civil society and investigative journalists to aid in the detection of corruption and unveiling of illicit assets.