· Published in Investigations

Know your Billionaires! A Portrait of Europe through its Richest

A collaborative report by civil society and media organisations sheds light on Europe’s richest, how they built their wealth and how they use it... A story of rising inequality and undermined democracy.

At the end of January 2020 , the world’s economic and political leaders will meet once more in Davos for the World Economic Forum to discuss global challenges and how to address them. Once again, this meeting of global elites will take place in a context of rising inequalities and climate crisis. “In that time, the fortunes of the richest have risen dramatically”, Oxfam noted in its global inequality report last year. The number of billionaires has almost doubled, with a new billionaire created every two days between 2017 and 2018, says the NGO.

While much more attention has been dedicated to the super-rich of the United States, China or even Russia, Europe too has a growing number of billionaires. The report ’Know your Billionaires’ takes a close look at some of key figures from across the continent. They are linked to some of Europe’s largest corporations, such as BMW, Ferrero, LVMH, ACS or Ineos. Most of them come from the Western part of the continent, although there is a growing number of Eastern European billionaires, who are now increasingly investing in countries such as France or Germany.

The story of how they made their wealth is often also the story of many of the ills of our economic and social systems, which have generated the very problems the Davos Forum claims to address. A story of tax avoidance, financialisation and dishing out of dividends, heavy reliance on public subsidies and tendering, secretive corporate structures, environmental damage or substandard wages and working conditions.

Levels of inequality are becoming no less astronomical in Europe than in other parts of the world. Hungarian billionaire Lőrinc Mészáros’ wealth is worth more than 161,000 years of his country’s minimum wage. For Jim Ratcliffe, it’s more than 623,000 years of the UK minimum wage. The net worth of Amancio Ortega, more than 61 billion euro, is equivalent to more than 4 million years of the Spanish minimum wage. For Bernard Arnault, his assets represent more than 3 million years of the French minimum wage.

While much has been said about the political role and influence of billionaires in the United States, starting with current President Donal Trump, Europe’s super-rich also wield considerable, and increasing, political influence. They cultivate close connections with political leaders and officials, they spend massive amounts of money in lobbying, they fund political parties (mostly of a conservative or far-right obedience), they own and influence mainstream media... … and sometimes they decide to get into politics themselves, like current Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.

The report ’Know your Billionaires’ was facilitated by the European Network of Corporate Observatories (ENCO). It includes contributions by Corporate Watch, Observatori del Deute en la Globalització and Xnet, Atlatszo.hu, Gresea, Observatoire des multinationales, Goliathwatch, Denik Referendum and independent journalists.

Featuring case studies on Jim Ratcliffe (UK), Florentino Pérez (Spain), Lőrinc Mészáros (Hungary), Christoph Blocher (Switzerland), the Ferrero family and the Agnelli family (Italy), Albert Frère (Belgium), Iskandar Safa (France-Lebanon), Susanne Klatten and Stefan Quandt (Germany), and Andrej Babiš (Czech Republic). Some of the case studies are also available in French or their original language.

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