Sometimes a great story passes you by and you have no choice but to kick yourself that you missed it. This happened to me in Austria a few weeks ago when I got into conversation over a late evening beer with a German client of mine.
He was explaining the German political structure to me and the fact that the power continues to reside at state-level and Chancellor Merkel can’t actually do much without the say-so of individual state prime ministers.
By way of illustration, he told me the story of Norbert Walter-Borjans, finance minister in North Rhine Westphalia in the Ruhr, who may look like an accountant but has the roar of a lion. Herr Borjans has been more than a little irritated of late by wealthy German tax evaders who spirit away their hard-earned to various Swiss banks before he can get his hands on it, circa Jimmy Carr and Gary Barlow over here.
Traditionally, finance ministers moan about tax evasion but do precious little to stop it. Not so Herr Borjans, who appeared on national television and made an offer of €2 million to the first employee of a Swiss bank who could supply him with a compact disc full of names of Germans with secret Swiss bank accounts.
Lo and behold a few weeks later a compact disc was delivered to Herr Borjans who then went on national television again and, holding up his new present, said the following (I’m paraphrasing): “Right, if your name is on this disc, you have a month to start paying your taxes or we’re coming after you.”
His actions have caused uproar in the normally conservative German political establishment. Chancellor Merkel publicly condemned him, but then started desperately trying to cobble a tax agreement together with the Swiss authorities. Relations between the two nations have also reached rock bottom. In the words of my client, “the Swiss hate us”.
However, Herr Borjans can console himself that the vast majority of ordinary Germans are on his side even if they don’t want to get too close to him. As my client says, “this is not a nice man, but he’s effective”.
For the record, Herr Borjans continues to get little gifts from across the border and Chancellor Merkel’s tax agreement looks like it has hit the rocks. All of which sends Herr Borjans close to the top of my list for Man of the Year.