Austrian heiress Marlene Engelhorn announces plan for €25m giveaway

Marlene Engelhorn
Image caption,Even before she inherited millions of euros, Marlene Engelhorn made clear she planned to give most of it away

By Bethany Bell

BBC News, Vienna

An Austro-German heiress is setting up a citizens group to decide how she should give away much of the fortune she inherited from her grandmother.

Marlene Engelhorn, who is 31 and lives in Vienna, wants 50 Austrians to determine how €25m (£21.5m) of her inheritance should be redistributed.

“I have inherited a fortune, and therefore power, without having done anything for it,” she said.

“And the state doesn’t even want taxes on it.”

Austria abolished inheritance tax in 2008, one of a handful of European countries that do not impose inheritance tax – or death duties.

Ms Engelhorn believes that is unfair.

She is a descendant of Friedrich Engelhorn, the founder of German chemical and pharmaceutical company, BASF, and inherited millions when her grandmother died in September 2022.

Traudl Engelhorn-Vechiatto’s wealth was estimated by US magazine Forbes at $4.2bn (£3.3bn; €3.8bn), and even before she died her grand-daughter had declared that she wanted to hand out about 90% of her inheritance.

On Wednesday, 10,000 invitations targeting randomly selected Austrian citizens began arriving in letterboxes in Austria.

Those who wish to take part in Ms Engelhorn’s initiative, known as the Good Council for Redistribution, can register online or by phone. From that initial sample of 10,000 Austrians who are all aged over 16, 50 people will be chosen, with 15 substitute members also selected in case of dropouts.

“If politicians don’t do their job and redistribute, then I have to redistribute my wealth myself,” she explained in her statement.

“Many people struggle to make ends meet with a full-time job, and pay taxes on every euro they earn from work. I see this as a failure of politics, and if politics fails, then the citizens have to deal with it themselves.”

Marlene Engelhorn of taxmenow
Image caption,In May 2022, Marlene Engelhorn joined a handful of millionaires in Davos calling for greater taxation of the wealthy

Christoph Hofinger, Managing Director of the Foresight Institute which is supporting the initiative, said the council to redistribute the heiress’s money would be made up of 50 people “from all age groups, federal states, social classes and backgrounds”.

The group will be asked to “contribute their ideas in order to jointly develop solutions in the interests of society as a whole”, he said.

They will take part in a series of meetings to be held in Salzburg with academics and civil society organisations from March to June this year.

Organisers say the meetings will be barrier-free, with childcare and interpreters available if required. Travel costs will be covered and participants will receive €1,200 for every weekend they attend.

Marlene Engelhorn believes their discussions will be a “service to democracy” and so they should be properly compensated for it.

“I have no veto rights,” she said: “I am putting my assets at the disposal of these 50 people and placing my trust in them.”

If they cannot come up with a “widely supported” decision on what to do with the money, then the money goes back to Ms Engelhorn.

It is not clear exactly what proportion of her inheritance is being given away, although back in 2021 she said she wanted to hand out at least 90% of it because she had done nothing to earn it and had merely struck lucky in a “birth lottery”.

Her team has not confirmed how much she is holding back although it said she was retaining some kind of financial buffer.

Sixteen years after Austria abolished inheritance tax, it remains contentious, and one major political party, the opposition Social Democrats, wants it reinstated.

Social Democrat leader Andreas Babler told public broadcaster ORF that he wanted it to be a central condition for potential coalition negotiations, after Austria’s next general election which is due later this year.

The conservative People’s Party, which is currently the senior partner in Austria’s coalition government with the Greens, has rejected his proposal.

Its general secretary, Christian Stocker, said that while Mr Babler wanted to “to further burden people in our country with his call for a wealth and inheritance tax, the People’s Party is providing relief. We reject new taxes; people must be left with more net income.”

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