We were given advance notice, courtesy Reuters in a dispatch dated May 05, of the European Union’s imminent decision to include Mauritius and ten other countries to its list of states that pose a “financial risk to the bloc because of anti-money laundering and terrorism financing shortfall”. The axe has fallen, and in a press release made public yesterday, the EU has added The Bahamas, Barbados, Botswana, Cambodia, Ghana, Jamaica, Mauritius, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe, considered as “high-risk third countries with strategic deficiencies in their regime regarding anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing” to its money-laundering blacklist.
The EU’s amended list will now be submitted to the European Parliament and Council for approval within one month (with a possible one-month extension). Given the Coronavirus crisis, the date of application of today’s Regulation listing third countries – and therefore applying new protective measures – only applies as of 1 October 2020. This is to ensure that all stakeholders have time to prepare appropriately, states the press release. In any case this couldn’t have come at a worse time, what with the many economic challenges that the country will have to face in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The bill for saving our economy and for allowing it to get back on its feet in the months ahead will run into billions, and the signal that the EU’s decision conveys to potential global investors and foreign bankers that might decide to keep away from Mauritius to avoid the risk of being at odds with the EU comes as a massive blow to the country.
We do not know at the time of writing what type of action will be contemplated in this matter by our policy makers, but there is no doubt that Mauritius will have to show, as it has done several times in the past that it is continuing to operate by the highest standards of international good governance. Strengthening of the rules or the adoption of new rules – without destroying the sector — to amply prove to the countries and organisations feeling aggrieved due to the operation of offshore operators that we are having clean hands will carry conviction. This will not be difficult to do provided we are sufficiently proactive to make it extremely unrewarding for operators to indulge in loose behaviour in defiance of codes of market conduct that comply with globally accepted norms.
Singapore, for instance, has decided to penalize its financial operators who help citizens of other countries in tax evasion as if they have indulged in a money laundering offence. Actions like this carry conviction that the jurisdiction “means business”. For us to be able to maintain pace like this, our authorities need to be always alert as to where exactly the shoe is pinching at the level of international susceptibilities. That should necessarily be followed up by taking timely pre-emptive action.
In the same line of thought, without any doubt the EU must also be concerned about the soundness of the country’s governance and the management of our public finances and economy. Can we honestly say that this is done with rigour and the national interest taking priority over all other, narrower or unethical considerations? If doubts are raised about election results and are followed with court cases, with allegations of rigging or bribing on a massive scale, what kind of signal does this send to international bodies such as the EU on which we depend for assistance? Besides, what about the chronic and repetitive, recurrent wastages that the country’s Audit Report exposes every year and that are never addressed, and other excessive expenditures (due to for example cost overruns on big projects), which all add further to budgetary deficits and contribute to piling up the country’s debt which is now nearing almost 70% of GDP?
If we want to gain international credibility, besides the responses that must be provided to address the specific issues raised by the EU, we could begin by putting our house in order to show our seriousness and commitment to straightening our financial situation. This will not be sufficient, but at least it will send a right signal. The forthcoming budget exercise gives an opportunity to do that.
* Published in print edition on 8 May 2020