Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

The EU's tax haven blacklist - impressive or impotent?

  • Luxembourg: How successful has the EU's tax havens blacklist really been? (Photo: Cesar Poyatos)

One year ago (5 December), the European Union published its first ever blacklist of tax havens. This was an assertive move against the ever-growing power of multinationals and private billionaires by an emboldened EU.

As a result of this pressure, many notorious tax havens committed to reform their tax laws before the end of 2018, and companies started moving away from tropical zero-tax islands.

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However, if the blacklist is to remain a relevant tool in the fight against tax avoidance, the EU must follow up on its first steps.

A preliminary analysis by Oxfam shows that, with just one month left to the deadline, at least 20 countries have failed to deliver sufficient reforms and could be blacklisted very soon, including heavyweights like Switzerland.

It is crucial that EU governments help end the era of tax havens to ensure the billions currently hidden from public coffers are spent on services which matter to European citizens - health, education, infrastructure, and development.

The economist Gabriel Zucman estimates that multinational companies shift as much as 40 percent of their global profits to tax havens every year. This deprives governments and citizens in the EU of €50bn to €70bn per annum, while developing countries loose at least $100bn (€88bn) during the same period - fuelling inequality and poverty.

So how successful has the EU's tax havens blacklist really been? Has it helped or hindered the fight against inequality?

Has it helped?

Last December, the EU started the blacklist with 17 tax havens. Since then, the list has dwindled to a paltry five countries - all small island states.

At the same time, a 'grey list' of countries that committed to reform their tax systems by the end of 2018 has grown. This list includes many of the most disreputable tax havens, like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

The 'grey list' is a clear success for the EU. For example, Liechtenstein was removed after ending the damaging tax practices that the EU had identified.

The blacklisting process has provoked changes in the way multinationals are operating. Big companies are beginning to move from tropical islands where they pay no tax, to countries where they pay extremely low tax.

US multinationals are changing their tax structures and leaving Bermuda and the Cayman Islands for countries like Ireland and Singapore which make use of weak international standards.

This trend is known as "onshoring" or "the tax haven shuffle", and it happens when zero-tax tropical islands change their tax regimes in response to external trends - in this case following pressure on tax havens from the EU.

Order in own house

For real impact, the EU must also tackle tax havens within its own territory.

Last year, Oxfam revealed that if the EU applied its own criteria for blacklisting to its member states, four countries would qualify - the Netherlands, Malta, Ireland, and Luxembourg.

Some months later, the European Commission openly criticised seven EU member states for their aggressive tax practices. But words are not enough.

On paper, Europe remains the region with the lowest average corporate tax rate in the world, and harmful tax incentives like patent boxes - which allow companies to avoid tax on intellectual property rights - are widespread.

This makes it easy for multinational companies to avoid paying their fair share, leaving governments in both the EU and elsewhere without the resources they urgently need.

There are four steps the EU should take to help end tax dodging.

Firstly, the EU must urgently put its own house in order to become a genuinely credible player in the fight against tax havens.

Secondly, the EU must make sure it blacklists all countries currently on the 'grey list' that fail to deliver the reforms they have committed to by the deadline. This should be done when the lists are reviewed in early 2019.

Thirdly, the EU must agree on effective sanctions against tax havens on its blacklist. Naming and shaming countries is a crucial first step, but it is not enough to end tax dodging.

Lastly, the EU should expand the criteria it uses to define fair taxation, so it bans harmful tax practices like patent boxes.

It is time for our governments to deliver on their promises.

Years of austerity and a faltering economic model have widened the gap between rich and poor in Europe, contributing to increasingly polarised societies and plunging the EU into crisis.

Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates that 736 million people worldwide live in extreme poverty, with limited access to health, education and the basic services proven to reduce inequality.

The EU must end tax havens - including those in its own backyard - and follow up on the blacklist to help create a world where all companies pay their fair share of tax, to the benefit of all people.

Marissa Ryan is head of the Oxfam EU advocacy office

Luxembourg not a tax haven, claims PM

The prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, maintains that his country had broken no rules and committed no crime when issuing rulings that slashed global tax bills for the big firms.

EU states loosen grip on tax havens

Finance ministers removed eight entities from the tax havens blacklist, while ruling out more transparency or sanctions - prompting criticism from tax-campaigning NGOs such as Oxfam.

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