Commissioners Katainen, Moscovici and Vestager react to the Panama Papers – 4/5/6 April
Commissioners Katainen, Moscovici and Vestager have issued comments in the immediate aftermath of the Panama Papers revelations. Commissioner Vestager referred to the Panama leaks as the “tip of the iceberg” on tax avoidance, and expresses her surprise at the extent and scale of the structures and activities revealed by the recent leaks, and states that “there has to be other companies that are advising on how to facilitate offshore companies”. Commissioner Katainen for his part refers to tax avoidance as a “cancer” to be eradicated, and argues that such tax optimisarion practices go against the very principles of a fair market economy. And finally, Commissioner Moscovici stated that the EU has a duty to fight against the forms of tax avoidance and optimisation as revealed by the Panama Papers. He considered such activities, even if within the bounds of law, as unethical. Commissioner Moscovici remains convinced that much like with the Luxleaks scandal, the Panama Papers will bolster Commission action and provide appropriate political momentum for tax reforms at the EU-level.
European Commission publishes VAT Action Plan – 7 April
The European Commission has published its long-anticipated VAT Action Plan (AP) titled Towards a single EU VAT Area – Time to decide. As implied by the title, the overall purpose of the AP is to propose a strategy and way forward for reforming the EU VAT system and achieving a “genuine single EU VAT area” that is “fit for purpose in the 21st century”.
As known, the Commission is in particular seeking to establish a definitive EU VAT regime based on the destination principle. The AP argues that this change alone would reduce cross-border VAT fraud by €40 billion annually. On top of the goal of establishing the definitive regime, the Commission will in parallel put forward measures to address other issues and challenges in the current EU VAT system.
The AP takes the form of a Commission Communication, and includes a timeline of specific measures and proposals that the Commission will put forward during 2016-2017 in order to achieve its stated objectives. The AP identifies some key areas for EU VAT reform, including:
In terms of next steps, Member States have been expecting for Commission proposals to reform the VAT system eagerly, and consequently work and negotiations on the communication will begin shortly on the Council’s side.
European Commission publishes proposal on public CBCR – 12 April
The European Commission has published its long-anticipated proposal on public Country by Country Reporting (CBCR). It takes the form of amending the Accounting Directive (2013/34/EU). An early version of the proposal was widely leaked to the press (please refer to the FEE Tax Policy Update from 1 April). However, the final version includes certain key changes to the provisions of the leaked version.
In the first instance, the leaked draft version of the Directive only required a CBC disclosure for EU Member States, whilst for non-EU jurisdictions only “aggregated data” would be necessary. However, as a follow-up from the Panama Papers scandal the European Commission has decided to beef up the proposal. The rule on aggregated data for external jurisdictions still applies overall, with the exception of those jurisdictions that do not abide by certain criteria such as “fair tax competition”, OECD/G20 standards and exchange of information. This “Common Union list of certain tax jurisdictions” constitutes a de-facto EU list of “tax havens”, and will be based on the process for identifying non-cooperative jurisdictions as established in the Commission Communication on an External Strategy published on 28 January. For now no list of such “tax havens” is provided in the proposal, and the Commission will establish it retroactively through Delegated Acts.
Moreover, one new disclosure element has been added to the list of key information to be included to the CBC report; namely, the amount of accumulated earnings. And finally, the final version of the proposal stipulates that the CBC report must include at the group level an overall narrative providing explanations on material discrepancies between the amounts of income tax accrued and the amount of income tax paid.
In terms of next steps, the proposal will subsequently move on to the Council and the European Parliament, which will co-legislate on this dossier. This means that both institutions will have to agree and compromise on the proposal before it can become EU law. It is difficult to predict how long the process will take, but given the political sensitivities around the topic an agreement (if feasible in the first place) will most likely not be achieved during 2016.
European Parliament Political Groups react to the Panama Papers – 4 April
The Political Groups of the European Parliament have issued preliminary reactions on the Panama Papers revelations. The centre-Right EPP Group refers to the tax optimisation practices revealed by the Panama leaks as “organised, large-scale parasitism” and calls on the Panama government and Mossack Fonseca to attend a hearing of the European Parliament. The centre-Left S&D Group calls for tougher action against “fraudsters” and those assisting them in the use of “tax havens”. S&D in the same context calls for full public Country by Country Reporting (CBCR). The Group moreover calls for a blacklist of “tax havens”, for Panama representatives to appear before the European Parliament, and further measures against money laundering. The liberal ALDE Group for its part calls for an investigation of the leaks, and demands for Mossack Fonseca to attend a hearing of the Parliament. ALDE furthermore calls for “clarifying” the role of banks in the scandal. The far-Left GUE-NGL Group for its part calls for public company registers of ultimate beneficiary owners, withholding taxes on financial transactions, withdrawing the licenses of banks that are “systematically and repeatedly” facilitating tax evasion, and steps to close down “tax havens”. Finally, the Greens-EFA Group also calls for tighter money laundering rules (including disclosure of beneficial ownership), for withholding taxes on funds transferred overseas, and for “aggressive action” to end the use of offshore shell companies for tax avoidance purposes.
TAXE2 Committee hearing with banks and Commissioner Vestager, Panama Papers discussed – 4 April
The TAXE II Committee of the European Parliament held a public hearing with RBS and Deutsche Bank. Of particular interest, several MEPs brought up the Panama Papers scandal, overall focusing on the role of the banking sector in advising and enabling clients to set up structures facilitating “aggressive tax planning” and setting up of offshore shell companies in “tax havens”. The MEP Jeppe Kofod (S&D/DEN) – the co-rapporteur for the Committee’s report on tax optimisation expected for the upcoming weeks – argued that the Panama leaks have demonstrated how important tax transparency is in revealing and preventing abusive practices, something he used as an additional argument in favour of public Country by Country Reporting (CBCR). He moreover referred to the role of tax advisors including banks, lawyers and accountants, and called for guidelines for the tax advisory sector as well as “sufficient sanctions” (including fines, prohibition of service provision to EU institutions, and in extreme cases revoking the business license). Neena Gill (S&D/UK) called on the two banks present at the hearing to disclose their relation to the Big 4 auditing companies, and indicate how much they pay them for tax related services.
ECON Committee discusses European Parliament report on the Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive – 11 April
The ECON Committee of the European Parliament has held a first debate on the a draft report prepared by the MEP Hugues Bayet (S&D/BEL) on the Commission proposal for an Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive (ATAD) (for further details on the draft report itself, please refer to the FEE Tax Policy Update from 18 March). During the discussion, the various Political Groups expressed their preliminary views on the draft report specifically, and the Commission ATAD proposal broadly. The centre-Right EPP Group stated that the Commission proposal is “good and feasible”, but maintained that ultimately a full Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB) would be essential in addressing tax optimisation in the EU. EPP feels that the provisions on exit taxation and hybrid mismatches could be “further adjusted”. The ECR Group (conservatives) criticised those elements of the ATAD that are not included in the OECD BEPS recommendations, as well as the lack of an impact assessment by the Commission. ECR argues that some of the provisions such as interest deductibility limitations risk having anti-social impacts in certain smaller Member States. The liberal ALDE Group for its part called for greater ambition and a common EU approach towards “tax havens”, whilst highlighting the lack of morality as a key driver of tax optimisation. Both the far-Left GUE-NGL and the Greens-EFA called for an abolition of patent boxes.
European Parliament plenary discusses Panama Papers – 12 April
The European Parliament has held a first general discussion on the Panama Papers scandal. During the debate, Commissioner Moscovici, who was present at the debate, referred to the Panama papers as a wake-up call for Member States. He moreover reiterated the need to set out a pan-European black list of non-cooperative jurisdictions. As expected, all Political Groups asked for further action to fight tax avoidance and boost transparency. Although reactions and statements remained generic, there were two key positions we could conclude for now. The EPP Group (centre-Right) expressed support to the Commission on its anti-tax agenda. Nevertheless, they do not seem to be in favour of creating a blacklist of countries. In particular, MEP Pablo Zalba Bidegain (EPP/ESP) mentioned that “off shores companies in Panama are illegal but Panama is not”. The S&D Group (centre-Left), the far-Left GUE-NGL and the liberal ALDE asked to create a committee of enquiry on Panama leaks (see article below for additional details). Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert representing the Dutch Presidency also attended the debate. Interestingly, Minister Plasschaert mentioned two ways to fight financial crime: more access to information when it comes to taxation but also anti-money laundering measures (AML revision).
European Parliament approves extension of standard minimum VAT rate until 2018 – 12 April
The European Parliament has voted in favour of extending the EU standard minimum VAT rate of 15% until the end of 2018. The initial Commission proposal, which it published at the end of December (please refer to earlier FEE Tax Policy Updates), proposed an extension until the end of 2017. The European Parliament’s opinion, however, will not have to be taken into consideration by the Commission or the Member States.
MEPs agree to establish special Committee to investigate Panama Papers – 12/14 April
As reported notably by Politico, a number of MEPs are calling for an investigative Committee to look with greater detail into the Panama Papers revelations. The initiative is championed in particular by the S&D Group (centre-Left), with support from the liberal ALDE and several other smaller groups. The largest Group, the EPP (centre-Right) for its part called for a “strong parliamentary investigation” into the matter. The exact form of such a investigative Committee remains unclear. The TAXE I Committee was established in the aftermath of the Luxleaks, and was succeeded by the TAXE II Committee at the end of last year. Finally on 14 April the Conference of Presidents (of European Parliament Political Groups) unanimously agreed to establish such an investigative Committee. The exact mandate of the Committee will be decided on 4 May, and a Plenary vote to finalise its establishment will take place on the same month. How this Committee will base on the work done by the two TAXE Committees remains to be seen. A number of MEPs have called on the Panama Papers Committee to constitute a continuation of TAXE’s work. EPP has been calling for the inclusion of VAT within the new Committee’s mandate.
General Court judgment on the Spanish Tax Lease system – 1 April
The European Commission has replied to a question asked by the MEP Bas Belder (ECR/NLD) with regard to a ruling of the EU General Court with regard to Spain’s tax lease system. In his question, Mr. Belder refers to a General Court ruling which annulled a previous Commission decision claiming that the Spanish tax lease system is unlawful. He asks the Commission whether it agrees that the lease system has been ruled as lawful, and whether this marks the beginning of a new investigation on the system. In her reply, Commissioner Vestager states that the General Court did not conclude that the system is lawful, and the Commission has appealed against the Court’s decision. The investigation consequently is open again, and the Commission will adopt a new final decision on the case pending on the outcome of the Court proceedings.
Agreements enabling multinationals to avoid paying taxes – 4 April
The European Commission has replied to a question asked by the MEP Joao Ferreira (GUE-NGL/POR) with regard to agreements that enable tax avoidance by multinationals. In his question, Mr. Ferreira refers to agreements and rulings between Member States and multinationals enabling these companies to reduce their tax obligations. He criticises the fact that even when such arrangements are ruled as unlawful from a state aid perspective by the Commission, the multinationals will only have to pay any taxes due whilst the Member States themselves will recover the amount in full. He consequently asks the Commission how it will ensure that “crime doesn’t pay”. In her reply, Commissioner Vestager states that the rules on state aid recovery are based on EU jurisprudence, and aim to restore the market conditions that existed prior to granting the unlawful aid. The Commission has no competences to order otherwise.
Introduction of a tax on profits generated abroad – 6 April
The European Commission has replied to a question asked by the MEPs Sophie Montel (ENF/FRA) and Florian Philippot (ENF/FRA) with regard to taxing profits generated abroad. In their question, the MEPs ask the Commission what measures it will take to tackle tax optimisation by multinationals, whether Member States will be allowed to tax companies’ profits generated in other countries, and how it will address transfer pricing. In his reply, Commissioner Moscovici refers to the upcoming re-launch of the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB) as a holistic means of tackling profit shifting and transfer pricing manipulation in the EU. Moreover, provisions in the recently proposed Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive (ATAD) includes provisions to further discourage such profit shifting practices, including CFC rules as well as the proposed switch-over clause.
Impact of public country-by-country reporting – 8 April
The European Commission has replied to a question asked by the MEP Miguel Viegas (GUE-NGL/POR) with regard to the impact of public Country by Country Reporting (CBCR). In his question, Mr. Viegas asks the Commission what criteria it used in its choice of an outside firm to conduct the impact assessment on public CBCR. In his reply, Commissioner Hill states that apart from a study assessing the impact of public CBCR on the financial sector conducted previously by PwC, no external contractor has been used to conduct further tax transparency impact assessments.
Italian Government further raising municipal taxes on all air passengers in order to subsidise redundancy fund for ex-Alitalia pilots — legal state aid and fair competition? – 13 April
The European Commission has replied to a question asked by the MEP Ramon Tremosa i Balcells (ALDE/ESP) with regard to Italian government plans to raise municipal taxes on all air passengers in order to subsidise a redundancy fund for previous Alitalia pilots. He asks the Commission whether the measure whether this constitutes discrimination against other airlines, and thus a potential breach of state aid and fair competition rules. In her reply, Commissioner Bulc (transport) states that the Commission has no particular views on taxes levied on air passengers, and the Commission has not identified discriminatory practices on the Italian tax since it is levied on all passengers using Italian airports.
“Five EU states vow tax crackdown on offshore accounts” – 15 April
According to EU Observer, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom have pledged to fight against offshore bank accounts, notably through the exchange of information on such accounts, as a follow-up to the Panama Papers revelations. The countries committed to establishing a register requiring transparency on beneficial ownership from companies and related entities.
CJEU issues ruling on bank secrecy and tax investigations – 14 April
The Third Chamber of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has issued a ruling regarding bank secrecy and tax investigations by tax administrations. According to the ruling, within certain conditions tax investigations by a Member State’s tax administration should not be prevented by bank secrecy rules in another Member State. The case involved the German tax authority requesting information from a German bank on the account details of a deceased German citizen who had been using the bank’s local subsidiary in Austria.
UK pondering potential legislation for disclosing tax strategies – March
A Draft High Level Guidance document implies that the UK is considering the possibility of legislation for companies to disclose their tax strategies. The legislation would establish a requirement for large businesses to prepare and publish their tax strategies, and includes qualifying criteria for publishing a tax strategy, what these strategies should contain as well as the conditions under which potential sanctions may be imposed.
Panama Papers further demonstrates scale and extent of tax avoidance and evasion – 4 April
As reported notably by the Guardian, media across the world has published information concerning over 200,000 offshore companies, including identities of shareholders and directors. The information is based on a leak of 11,5 million documents amounting to 2,6 terabytes of data, and appears to reveal the extent to which certain individuals and companies have used offshore tax regimes and shell firms for the purpose of keeping their wealth out of the reach of governments. The revelations have raised concerns over potential tax abuse and money laundering.
At the EU-level, tax remains a heated topic. The European Commission and Parliament have been particularly active in proposing measures to address “aggressive tax planning” and other dubious tax practices in past months. As it happened before, the Panama leaks will inevitably affect the EU-level tax discussions. The European Parliament has already hosted a number of discussions on the topic, and MEPs have expressed their outrage at the revelations (see section on European Parliament above). The European Commission can be expected to have boosted confidence in its tax agenda, and already proposed public Country by Country Reporting (CBCR) for “tax havens” in its proposal from 12 April – a move that several stakeholders consider to be a follow-up on the Panama leaks.
“France, Spain, US launch probes over Panama Papers”, Hungary also to investigate – 4/13 April
As reported notably by Politico and Tax News, a number of countries are launching investigations as a follow-up to the Panama Papers scandal. France, Spain, US and Australia are amongst countries planning to initiate investigations to discover the degree to which their respective citizens are implicated in the use of offshore structures for illicit tax purposes. According to Tax News, the French Government will be gathering information notably through its treaty network on the avoidance of double taxation. Suspected tax evaders may face criminal proceedings. Moreover, Hungary has also announced its intention to investigate Hungarian links to the Panama Papers.
“Germany plans new tax law on back of ‘Panama Leaks’ revelations” – 5 April
According to Euractiv, Germany is planning to strengthen its tax laws as a reaction to the Panama Papers. The measures include the establishment of a national transparency register obliging companies to disclose the identities of their owners. Although the planned measures related to anti-money laundering, it is sparked by the perceived need to address abusive tax practices.
“Collapse of $160bn Pfizer and Allergan merger shocks corporate US” – 6 April
As reported notably by the Financial Times (article only available to subscribers), Pfizer and Allergan have abandoned their $160 billion deal as a consequence of new US steps to end tax inversion deals. The US measures are a follow-up to the Panama Papers revelations, and demonstrates the immediate and tangible effects that the scandal has already had on the global tax landscape.
“Netherlands To Probe Panama Papers” – 7 April
According to Tax News, the Netherlands is considering investigative action in reaction to the Panama Papers scandal. The Dutch tax administration will look into the revelations, with particular focus on information “that can be used for taxation purposes”. In parallel, the Dutch Central Bank will continue investigations on trust offices established in the Netherlands.
Wolfgang Schäuble publishes action plan as a reaction to Panama Papers – 10 April
The German Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, has published a 10-point Action Plan as a response to the Panama Papers. He intends to push the Action Plan on the agenda and discussions with international partners in upcoming weeks and months. Of particular interest, the Action Plan proposes to introduce measures to further disincentivise the provision of aggressive tax planning advice, with reference to BEPS recommendations (probably Action 12); the formulation of an international blacklist of non-cooperative jurisdictions based on common and mutually recognised standards; tougher sanctions on jurisdictions and companies that fail to comply; and the establishment of a global register of beneficial ownership and national registers, available to journalists and NGOs and based on common standards.
“Cameron pushes for criminal sanctions over tax evasion” – 11 April
As reported notably by the Financial Times (article only available to subscribers), the British Prime Minister David Cameron has reacted to the Panama Papers by proposing to criminalise the provision of assistance in tax evasion schemes. More accurately, a new criminal offence would be created for companies failing to prevent their staff from deliberately and actively assisting in tax evasion.
New Zealand To Simplify Tax Rules For SMEs – 13 April
According to Tax News, New Zealand has introduced a package of measures to simplify tax rules for SMEs and reduce compliance costs. The measures include a reduction of use-of-money interest for a great number of taxpayers, as well as greater flexibility for contractors to choose the most appropriate withholding tax rate. Additional measures are listed in the article below.
Rising tax revenues are key to economic development in African countries – 1 April
According to recent OECD statistics, tax revenue as a proportion of national income is increasing in several African countries. The statistics cover eight countries, namely Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritius, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia, and thus encompasses almost a quarter of the continent’s GDP. Between 2000 and 2014, the tax-to-GDP ratios increased in all eight countries, ranging from a 0,9% increase in Mauritius to a 6,7% increase in Tunisia. For the same period, the OECD average of 34,4% increased by a mere 0,2%.
Statement from OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on the “Panama Papers” – 4 April
The OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria has issued a statement reacting to the Panama Papers scandal that erupted on 3 April. In his statement, Mr. Gurria refers to Panama as the “last major holdout” that resists global efforts to tackle hiding funds offshore for dubious purposes, and calls on the country to take serious measures to implement international tax transparency standards. He furthermore calls for further global efforts to strengthen the global implementation of mutually agreed standards and recommendations.
Public comments received on discussion draft on the treaty residence of pension funds – 6 April
OECD has published the responses received to its consultation on the tax treaty residence of pension funds (see Tax Policy Update 4 March). As a reminder, the consultation was launched on 29 February and in particular sought views on change proposals to the OECD Model Tax Convention in order to ensure that pension funds are appropriately considered to be residents in the country in which they have been constituted for tax treaty purposes. A total of 28 comments were received by different stakeholders, including PwC, Deloitte, the Irish Tax Institute, ICAEW, and the Global Pension Fund Coalition.
New OECD statistics on labour income taxes – 12 April
OECD has published new statistics on the tax burden on labour in its member countries. According to the statistics, the average taxes on labour income “remained stable”, at 35,9% in 2015, which follows a consistent trend of ever increasing burden since 2011. Of additional interest, the highest average tax burden on childless single workers was in Belgium (55,3%) followed by Austria (49,5%) and Germany (49,4%). On the other end of the scale, Chile (7%) had the lowest burden, with followed by New Zealand (17,6%).
Tax administrations meet on “Panama Papers” – 13 April
A meeting of the Joint International Tax Shelter Information and Collaboration (JITSIC) brought together senior tax administration officials from a number of countries to discuss information sharing and further cooperation as a follow-up of the Panama Papers. The meeting saw representatives from a number of jurisdictions, including several OECD and G20 members. As a next step, the tax administrations will take necessary steps in their respective countries to concretise the outcome and agreements made during the meeting.
Concrete actions needed to advance global tax transparency, OECD says – 14 April
In a new report to the G20, the OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria has called for progress in the implementation of international tax transparency standards as well as on getting new jurisdictions to commit to exchange of tax information. Mr. Gurria argues that effective and all-encompassing implementation of these standards by all jurisdictions is necessary in order to ensure that there is “nowhere left to hide” for those seeking to minimise their tax obligations.
Belgium contests Commission decision on its excess profits scheme – March
Belgium has launched an appeal to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) regarding a January decision by the European Commission which stated that its “excess profit scheme” is a breach of EU state aid rules (see Tax Policy Update 22 January). Commission consequently ordered Belgium to recover over €700 million from 35 multinationals that benefitted from the scheme. Belgium also launched a request for not having to collect the tax income before the Court has issued its final verdict.
Civil society organisations unhappy with upcoming public CBCR proposal – 5 April
A number of civil society organisations have expressed their unhappiness towards the Commission draft proposal on public Country by Country Reporting (CBCR) through a joint letter addressed to the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Although the letter refers to the earlier version of the draft proposal (i.e. before Panama Papers), some of the criticism raised by the NGOs is not addressed in the final version. In particular, the NGOs are unhappy about the €750 million threshold which they claim is insufficient in scope, about the disclosure elements which do not include assets, sales or a full list of subsidiaries, as well as the requirement for only aggregated data with regard to third countries. The Commission however ended up proposing some changes to this in the aftermath of the Panama revelations, and is proposing to extend the CBCR requirement to multinationals’ activities in “tax havens” as well (see article in the section on European Commission).
“How fury over tax havens moved from the margins to the mainstream” – 6 April
Tom Burgis has written an article on the Financial Times (only available to subscribers) on increasing public outrage at tax havens. In his article, Mr. Burgis describes how questions of tax fairness, inequality and tax havens have taken a more prominent role in public opinion and debates through a combination of factors such as the financial crisis, austerity, leaks, as well as academics and “star economists” such as Thomas Piketty.
“Oxfam highlights World Bank investments in companies linked to tax havens” – 11 April
Public Finance International refers to a recently published Oxfam report on the scale of World Bank’s Sub-Saharan African investments into companies linked to “tax havens”. The report asserts that up to 84% of World Bank investments by its private lending arm International Finance Corporation in the region went to 51 companies that use offshore companies for potential tax optimisation purposes, out of a total of 68 companies.
“US corporations have $1.4tn hidden in tax havens, claims Oxfam report” – 14 April
According to the Guardian, a recent Oxfam report argues that US companies have up to $1,4 trillion hidden in “tax havens”. The report consequently calls on public Country by Country Reporting (CBCR) to be applied in the US. These findings are likely to further contribute to political pressure and momentum at the global level to address tax optimisation practices and structures such as the ones revealed by the Panama Papers leaks.
28-29/04/2016, Corruption and the role of tax havens, Tax Justice Network et al., London.
18/05/2016, Reforming regulation of professions: results of mutual evaluation and way forward, European Commission, Brussels.
07/06/2016, The priorities of the Slovak Republic Presidency of the Council, EPC, Brussels.
09/2016, Bruegel Annual Meetings, Bruegel, Brussels.