Monday, 3 December 2012

Clamping Down on Tax Injustice—Sharing the Price of Austerity

Daragh McCarthy: On Wednesday, the EU’s tax commissioner will outline a set of proposals aimed at reducing the level of tax evasion and aggressive tax planning in the EU. The Commission estimates that tax dodging, in all it's various guises, deprives Member States of almost €1 trillion every year.

Reports suggest that the plan will detail the need to agree a concrete, shared definition of a "tax haven", and to create a blacklist of jurisdictions that match the definition. It is hoped that this measure will make it easier to tackle tax evasion and to take action against jurisdictions that fall outside the norms governing the taxation of cross-border corporate transactions.

The Commissioner's report will look at ways of closing-off access to loopholes that facilitate the development of aggressive tax avoidance structures. To this end, it has been suggested that states adopt "general anti-abuse" legislation that would allow tax authorities to disregard any corporate arrangements deemed to solely serve the purpose of tax avoidance. In addition, the Tax Commission will outline the need for countries to insert a clause into their double-tax agreements specifying that one country is precluded from taxing income only if that income is taxed in the other contracting state. It is hoped that is would prevent double non-taxation of income.

Efforts to extract a greater tax yield from transitional businesses must address several challenges. TASC's report highlights the difficulty of assigning a market value to transactions between subsidiaries of the same parent company. By making it hard for officials to identify and place a true value on intra-group deals that purely facilitate tax reduction, multinationals retain the capacity to substantially reduce the potential effectiveness of some of the measures being proposed. The 2006 European Court of Justice ruling in favour of Cadbury Schweppes established that putting subsidiaries in low-tax countries was not necessarily tax avoidance—so long as the activity carried out by the operation was not "wholly artificial"—which makes legislating for reform more problematic. Finally, Feargal O'Rourke recently argued that the increasing prominence of online business is reducing states' ability to collect tax from corporate entities, though it's difficult to establish the extent of the hindrance that this creates.

Effective regulation of the problem requires enhanced international co-operation. It's a well-worn argument, but aggressive tax code competition between countries results in jurisdictions that unilaterally decide to take a harder line with regard to taxing transitional subsidiaries being punished through the loss of foreign investment. Ireland's model of industrial development is, however, largely predicated on enticing multinationals to the jurisdiction on the basis our low-tax regime, so, in the medium term, the proposals represent a potential threat to economy. If the Commission's ideas gain traction—and the EU moves closer to the creation of a Common Consolidated Tax Base—pleasing the multinationals while remaining a full-fledged member of the EU could become an increasing precarious balancing act.

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