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25th Aug 2019

Charity attacks EU "hypocrisy" on tax evasion

  • Tax takes centre stage at Wednesday's EU summit (Photo: European Council)

EU leaders have been put on the defensive after development charity Oxfam accused them of turning a blind eye to €9.5 trillion hidden in European tax havens.

Oxfam, which lambasted what it described as EU "hypocrisy" and "hot air," launched its report as leaders gather in Brussels on Wednesday (22 May) for talks aimed at cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance.

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According to Oxfam's estimates, based on data gathered from the Swiss-based Bank of International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund, at least €14 trillion is hidden by wealthy individuals in tax havens around the world, of which around €9.5 trillion is kept in Europe or Europe-linked protectorates.

The organisation claims that this costs EU governments €120 billion a year in lost tax revenues.

In a statement, Natalia Alonso, the head of Oxfam’s EU Office, said that there was "enough potential tax to be had on hidden 'private' money to end extreme poverty twice over."

She added that "unless the EU agrees a public tax havens blacklist and clear countermeasures, we won’t get much more than hot air from leaders."

In a blow to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who has recently talked tough on tax evasion, Oxfam singled out the UK and its overseas dependencies as the biggest culprit, accounting for over €40 billion of the lost tax revenue.

Earlier this week, Cameron sent an open letter to 10 UK-linked tax havens, which include islands in the Caribbean and in the Channel, urging them to disclose information on bank accounts used for company ownership.

The UK leader also plans to put the issue on top of the agenda at the next meeting of the G8 in June.

"We need to know who really owns and controls each and every company," he wrote, adding that the 10 territories should provide "full and accurate details on the true ownership and control of every company."

For once, the eurozone crisis will not take centre stage at the summit.

The talks start with a "working lunch" and are expected to finish by 6pm Brussels time in what would amount to one of the shortest top-level meetings in recent years.

Tax and energy policy are the main items on the agenda.

But talks about a future EU banking union and the long-term welfare of the eurozone are expected to take place on the margins.

The meeting is the first of a series of themed summits focusing on EU competitiveness planned by European Council President Herman van Rompuy.

Although tax policy is rarely discussed at EU level, tax evasion and bank secrecy have become politically charged in recent months following scandals in France and Greece over the use of secret bank accounts by politicians.

One EU official told this website that leaders would try to make progress on information exchange and banking secrecy before having a more general discussion on corporate taxation.

The tiny amount of tax paid by business giants has also sparked controversy.

On Tuesday, the Irish government denied that it gave a preferential tax deal to US software giant Apple after a US senate report indicated that it paid minimal tax on tens of billions of dollars in profits kept in Irish holding companies.

In concrete terms, leaders are hoping to break a deadlock on the so-called Savings Tax directive, which would allow governments to collect information on income from foreign accounts held by their residents.

Although the bill is near completion, Austria and Luxembourg are yet to give the green light, after saying they would not sign off without British action on its own tax havens.

EU officials were sanguine about the prospects of clinching a deal, with one commenting that "there is no disagreement on the scope of the directive."

Another contact said the summit would not be used to simply "pressurise Austria and Luxembourg," but added that both countries had already "implied that they will abide by EU rules on info exchange within the EU."

Meanwhile, Irish officials are hoping the talks will move forward EU legislation to combat VAT fraud with a view to agreement before the end of their six month presidency in June.

On energy, talks are likely to focus on how governments can lower prices to support industrial activity in Europe.

This could involve government measures to support renewable energies, but also to back traditional energy sources by making changes to state aid rules.

An EU official said the energy talks would take place through the lens of prices rather than environmental and climate change concerns.

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