14 Jun The Italian Taxman and Brexit
From the untamed beautiful bedlam of Naples to the majestic ruins of Rome that murmur the history of our time; to the nonchalant yet exquisitely tasteful nose in the air that is Milan, to the random wild card of Italian cities that is Trieste.
Italia: An idyllic place to set up the lock, stock and barrel of your business. Right?
I spoke to a group of successful female foreign business owners in Italy to find out just that. In Part Two the Grim Reaper, aka the Italian Taxman, takes center stage. Then enter stage left: “Brexit.”
All of the interviewed businesswomen spoke about taxation and bureaucracy as the veritable banes of the nitty gritty of their business lives. So, what are the difficulties they face?
Ambiguity: Hands up if you know the answer
Christina Ayer, Canadian, is an online entrepreneur, managing two businesses in Italy: xinamarie.com is a niche-market online store that supplies mosaic art materials and holiday-garda.com specializes in luxury villa rentals on Lake Garda. Christina explained that in the first years of running her mosaic export business she sought advice from 3 different accountants on how to manage the VAT on exports within the European Union. All three professionals provided different answers which meant she had to trade for the whole first year without charging VAT to EU clients. A simple and non-contradictory law did actually exist, but it was communicated so poorly that the actual professionals were not able to provide the right advice.
Kathy Moulton, co-owns a maternity store and manages an online community, kalilacommunity.com dedicated to prenatal well-being. Kathy also explains that the lack of clarity regarding the tax laws came as a shock to her on launching her businesses in Italy. “All of the power in running a business in Italy seems to be on how savvy your accountant is. This was a whole new concept to me. In Canada I always took care of my own personal and business tax declarations.”
Penalty of success: “I had to take out a mortgage to pay my taxes.”
In 2008 Christina’s mosaic business peaked when she was awarded the contract for the supply of mosaic tiles for the Al Baraij Bait towers in Mecca. One of largest mosaic projects in the world, with over 40.000sqm of tile. This was a major milestone for her business at the time but the tax implications on the growth of her business almost proved disastrous. In Italy the tax system is based on a model of balance and advance payments. This means that every year you will have to pay the balance of the tax pertaining to the previous year and on the basis of the same projected income for the current year, two advance payments must be made to cover the taxes due for the following year. This means that if you grow your business you will not have “banked”, purely by default, enough taxes in the previous year to pay for the current year. The upshot of this can be crippling for small start-ups in their first years and for established businesses that go through exponential growth as in Christina’s case. The year of the tower project Christina actually had to take out a new mortgage in order to be able to cover her tax bill.
Ignazio Bellitti an accountant in the Brescia area of Italy explains that the social security contributions (INPS) are also growing each year and becoming another new default tax in Italy. “Contributions can range between 22-29%. This becomes an additional hemorrhage for a small entrepreneur or start-up.“ said Bellitti.
Only the big kids are allowed to play
The business administration rules in Italy are all designed with large business in mind and there are few existing parameters to fit the needs of small businesses or their more limited ability, to meet the requirements in place. Whereas in other countries like the UK, Canada or the United States there is a culture that encourages the spirit of entrepreneurship that is supported by government incentives, initiatives and tax breaks to empower small business success, Italy, on the surface, does not seem to be strong in that area.
Christina explains further: “Hiring people is a nightmare. You need a safety certificate and the total costs involved in that whole process came to around 6000 Euros. An officially hired employee then costs the business more than double their wage. If I pay an employee 1000 Euros a month, it costs about 2200 Euros with the taxes and social security contributions.”
Employee contracts adhere to nationwide standards and the employee protection laws work well for businesses with numerous employees. However for smaller businesses, with just one or two employees, it is very difficult to support both their wages and all the extras that are required by law. It becomes a catch 22 situation: the net cost of hiring is such that any initial extra business growth will not provide return on your investment for quite some time. That is….if you make it of course.
Linda Martinez owns and runs The Beehive in Rome, a cross between a budget hotel and an upscale hostel. Linda told me: “The most difficult aspects of running our business have always been navigating the endless bureaucracy and keeping up to date with constantly changing laws and regulations. The costs of running a business are also very high – from staff costs to the day to day operational costs. Italy is not an easy place to do business or to expand unless you have money. The old adage of “money makes money” is very true here.”
Jody de Best, originally from California, is an Interpretive and Museum Design Specialist in Lombardy. Jody explains that her decision to set up a Limited Liability company (SRL) with a local business partner was also based on fiscal implications. “I would have had to pay in order to work if I had continued to structure the business as an independent professional with just a VAT number registration. After number crunching I decided to leverage my strengths in the sector with the know-how from a local business partner with over 30 years experience. It was the most sensible shot of giving my business the chance to be profitable.”
The dark shadow
Italy’s government last year estimated the country’s total losses to tax evasion at €90 billion a year. The shadow economy still very much dogs Italy’s economic growth and the honest taxpayers such as small businesses are the real victims:
Kathy explains: “There’s the underlying world of tax evasion in Italy that is extremely frustrating. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, it is ever present. It is also extremely demoralizing to see other businesses succeed because they choose to avoid taxes in a major way, especially when your very large tax bill then arrives.”
The Italian Prime Minster, Matteo Renzi, has also been widely criticized for recent reforms which allow the limit on cash transactions to be tripled to €3,000 and for the raise from €50,000 to €150,000 of the amount of tax that can be evaded without criminal sanctions.
The European Commission latest report 2014-15 cites Small and Medium Enterprises as the backbone of the European economy with 99/100 businesses registered as a SME. 9/10 of SMEs are in fact Micros, meaning they employ less than 10 employees. With this in mind, the small business owners like the ones I have spoken with, are often left wondering why there aren’t more measures in place in Italy to encourage the growth of this backbone economy.
Linda said: “If there was a spirit of change that meant the environment in which we conduct business was more supportive to entrepreneurs, Italy would also see a large return of the many who have left to pursue opportunities in more business-friendly places of the world.”
The Bankers… with a “B” of course….
Amy West, American, handcrafts bespoke glass and jewelry from her Murano studio in Veneto. Amy explains that just opening a bank account in Italy was an arduous feat in itself. “Initially I was denied both opening the account and a credit card with a limit of a €1000, despite the fact that I had a letter from my US bank showing a six-figure balance in my savings accounts. It wasn’t until I returned with my Murano engraving “maestro” who threatened to withdraw all of his and his family’s banking business, that the bank begrudgingly agreed to open an account for me. However I was given a credit card with a very low limit and one of the most expensive bank accounts available with “high risk” fees imposed because I was a foreign woman. I felt completely burned by this experience, so violated.”
With the referendum on June 23rd on whether the UK remains in the EU or not, I asked our panel: Is a potential Brexit, positive or negative?
Christina: “I just can’t actually imagine it happening. It seems so obviously and tremendously counter-productive and risky for everyone that I find it hard to believe the British public would actually support it — there would have to be a moment of mass delusional psychosis for it to pass. OK, that happens, it has happened before. But really it seems such an unlikely outcome. The optimist in me has faith in the British public.”
Amy: “Having GB leave the EU would make what I’m doing there, much more complicated and much less straightforward. I’ve been working quite successfully with a wonderful gallery in London, and having GB as a part of the EU makes it all very easy and seamless, operating within the same general economic framework.”
Kathy: “If GB exits, I think it would be a bad thing from an European (and dare I say global) perspective. The flow of goods would obviously be hindered. The products that we order for our business that arrive from outside of the EU are always a much bigger headache than the ones that arrive from within, so ordering from the UK would become much more complicated for us.”
Ginny: “I can’t see it as a good thing. Europe is not doing well (at least the southern half isn’t). There’s going to be a ripple effect in many laws and regulations that no one yet knows what will be the impact.”
You live, work and maybe also are raising your families in Europe. What does being European mean to you?
Christina: “I don’t really feel European at all. Though when I go back to Canada I don’t feel Canadian either. I love how local identity thrives in Italy. I identify more with the traditions, cultures, attitudes of the community that I have rooted myself in here, rather than Italy or Europe. It kind of makes me a “real Italian”. Italians, that I have met anyway, also define themselves more by their local and regional identities than by a national one.”
Kathy: “My life in Europe somewhat started by chance as I moved here with the idea of only trying it out. It evolved into something much longer term and so I am slowly realizing that my children will grow up with a completely different cultural identity than mine. I don’t yet feel and understand the unity across Europe in the sense that I don’t often hear Italians referring to themselves as Europeans. I am still learning about “being Italian” so I would say that “being European” still doesn’t mean much to me at this point.”
Ginny: “I think of myself as European. I’ve been away too long now to really think of myself as British. It feels to me like one big happy family and I like that.”
What does the European Union mean to you?
Christina: “I love that my kids have this extraordinary tapestry of culture, history, languages, places that they can choose from freely as they branch out and plan their futures. I love that my eldest daughter can choose to go to London or Berlin or Bologna or Paris for university. I hate the “watering down” of local traditions as more and more things are forced into a standardization across all of Europe, especially with regards to food and agriculture. In Italy there are more than 1200 varieties of apples, and they could be lost forever. But for the most part, I trust the European political process.”
Amy: “I feel Europe as a continent united in the EU, is as close as we can get to being one economic presence without losing important aspects of independent and distinct cultures.”
Ginny: “Of course it means more politicians (and who wants more of those? 😉 However I do believe in the benefit of more minds, more opinions and more experiences to make a more balanced “overview.” Things aren’t nearly as standardized across Europe as some of the “Exiters” say they are either. And surely it has to be better to be in the group and have some say rather than be isolated, physically and politically?”
Kathy: “The European Union represents freedom to me. Freedom to move between all of the countries without the travel hassles and from a business perspective it means being able to order goods without custom or tax issues. I see it as a very privileged system that we are lucky to have. While each country is extremely different, it does give people the opportunity to move for work or pleasure in a way that is not available outside of the EU.”
Emma Cuthbertson is founder and owner of La Piccola Agency, a boutique Marketing and PR agency based in Northern Italy.