Encouraging the avoidance of paying tax

The issue as to whether or not  Malta is a tax haven has been brought to the fore once again, as a result of the amendment to the Panama Papers Inquiry Report discussed in the European Parliament earlier this week. The defeated amendment would have seen Malta, Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands labelled by the European Parliament as “tax havens”.

The matter is much more complex. On the one hand it involves tax competition and on the other hand it is a matter of justice in taxation matters.

As has been repeatedly stated, competition on taxation matters is one of the few areas in which small, as well as peripheral, countries in the European Union have a competitive advantage. Alternattiva Demokratika-The Green Party is not in favour of loosing this competitive advantage through tax harmonisation in the EU. However, it has to be used in a responsible manner.

The rules permitting the refund of a substantial amount of tax paid by foreign-owned companies based in Malta is one of the main reasons for the current spotlight. This substantial tax refund effectively reduces the tax paid by such companies from 35% to five per cent and is obviously considered very attractive by a number of companies. The basic question that requires a clear answer is how many of these companies are letter-box companies, that is companies which do not have any part of their operations on Maltese soil?

It would be reasonable to encourage companies to base part of their operations in Malta and, as a result, make use of tax advantages. But in respect of those companies which have not moved any part of their operations to Malta, making use of beneficial taxation arrangements is unreasonable and unjust. It leads to such companies avoiding paying tax in the countries in which they create their profits and consequently avoiding their social responsibilities on paying taxes in the countries that are providing them with the very facilities which make it possible for them to create their wealth.

In a nutshell, Malta is providing these companies with the legal framework to avoid their taxation responsibilities in the countries in which they operate through payment of a fraction of these taxes to the Maltese Exchequer. They pocket the rest.

Hiding behind the EU unanimity rule on tax issues will not get us anywhere, as Ireland has learnt in the Apple case. At the end of the day, the situation is not just about  taxation: it also involves competition rules and rules regulating state aid, as the legal infrastructure encouraging the avoidance of taxation is, in effect, a mechanism for state aid. The is also an issue of tax justice, as a result of which tax should be paid where the profits are generated.

Tax competition has a role to play as an important tool that small and peripheral countries in the EU have at their disposal. No one should expect these countries, Malta included, to throw away the small advantage they have, but it should be clear that this should be used responsibly and in no way should it buttress the urge of multinationals to circumvent the national taxation system in the country where their profits are generated.

Profits should be taxed where they are actually generated and not elsewhere. The EU needs to end – once and for all – not only tax evasion but also tax avoidance resulting from loopholes in national taxation rules. For this to happen, the EU member states must not only be vigilant, but they must also refrain from encouraging tax avoidance through the creation of more loopholes.

Tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance seriously will mean that taxes are paid where they are due, thereby funding the services and infrastructure that is required in a modern, civilised society. This can only happen if more companies pay their dues.

Tax competition need not be a race to the bottom.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 17 December 2017

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Tax avoidance: does Malta play a role?

basf-malta

On 30 August, the European Union, through Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, ordered Apple Corporation to pay €13 billion in unpaid taxes to the Irish state.  The EU ruling considered that the special tax treatment of Apple, whose tax bill was substantially reduced, amounted to unlawful state aid.

In November 2014, through Luxleaks, we learnt of tax avoidance schemes in Luxembourg and elsewhere, as a result of which billions of euros in tax were being avoided by multinational corporations.

The EU has subsequently launched various investigations into the favourable tax treatment which Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Belgium have granted to various multinationals.

As a contribution to the on-going debate on tax avoidance in the EU, the Green Group in the European Parliament has recently published a study on the tax avoidance strategies adopted by the industrial giant BASF, the largest chemical company in the world.

Founded in 1865, BASF has its headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany, from where it manages a €70.4 billion turnover with production sites in 80 countries.

Malta features in this report together with Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Over the years, BASF has used mismatches in national tax systems in order to avoid paying its taxes. It is estimated that, over a five-year period spanning 2010 to 2014, BASF avoided the payment of close to one billion euros in taxes.

Chapter VIII of the report, published by the Green Group in the European Parliament, deals with Malta. It refers to the existence of a BASF subsidiary in Malta which held €5.07 billion in assets. These assets where transferred to a new German subsidiary, BASF Finance Malta GMBH, which was managed from an office in St Julian’s, thereby creating the eligibility for preferential tax treatment which could amount to as much as a refund of six-sevenths of all tax payable in Malta.

All this is a clearly planned movement of profits through generous loopholes as a way of avoiding most of, if not all, of the taxation which would be due under normal circumstances.

This abuse of the differences in national tax systems needs to be addressed urgently. As rightly stated by Malta’s Finance Minister Edward Scicluna at a Luxembourg ECOFIN meeting last September, the way forward lies in coordination at an EU level and not in the harmonisation of the national taxation systems, as some EU member states are insisting.

Tax competition has a role to play as an important tool that small and peripheral countries in the EU have at their disposal. No one should expect these countries to throw away the small advantage they have, but it should be clear that this should be used responsibly and in no way should it buttress the urge of multinationals to circumvent the national taxation system where their profits are generated.

Profits should be taxed where they are actually generated and not elsewhere. The EU needs to end – once and for all – not only tax evasion but also tax avoidance resulting from loopholes in national tax rules. For this to happen, the member states must not only be vigilant, but must also refrain from encouraging tax avoidance through the creation of more loopholes.

Tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance seriously will mean that taxes are paid where they are due, thereby funding the services and infrastructure that is required in a modern, civilised society. This can only happen if more companies pay their dues. Tax competition need not be a race to the bottom.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 4 December 2016