The Benjamin Franklin quote above is increasingly becoming true, even to the old ‘certainty’ in the EU that common tax policies – demanding unanimous decision-making between Member States – will only move at glacier speed through the negotiations.
Corporate taxation currently features big on the European policy agenda, and is unlikely to lose ground any time soon. A combination of heightened media attention, revelations of tax evasion through Luxleaks or Panama Papers, budgetary constraints in many countries and increased awareness by the public have created unprecedented momentum for a more coordinated EU corporate tax policy.
The undeniable truth (?) of the Hart quote notwithstanding, this opportunity to be civilised in itself comes at a prize. The changes to tax rules that already have been and will be discussed have the potential to substantively impact how businesses pay and report taxes, how the companies are structured and not only how they do tax planning, but how they do business as such, in Europe.
Rules on interest deduction limitations, hybrid mismatches and controlled foreign companies, whilst seemingly ‘just’ an implementation of OECD guidelines might have further reaching consequences than any parties imagined when these issues where negotiated – in the context of voluntary guidelines – at the august Paris based institution.
In parallel, companies’ own corporate taxation policies are increasingly scrutinized by the public, with possible impact on reputation and side-effects on the ability to influence public policy not limited to taxation – and with layers to be further applied, if the Commission’s proposal on public country-by-country reporting gets tailwind through legislative negotiations.
Nevertheless… the time for thinking of EU tax policy is now! Work on greater harmonization of corporate taxation rules in the EU and to close loopholes stemming from different national tax laws is on full throttle as no EU government – or anyone else for that matter – wants to be seen as blocking the crack down on tax evasion. And rightly so!
Automatic exchange of tax rulings between EU Member States’ tax authorities and sharing detailed information on companies’ revenues, profits and taxes paid have already been agreed on – in both cases within only a few months after publication of the Commission’s legislative proposal.
Currently, EU countries – pushed forward by the ambitious Dutch Council Presidency – are working hard on the abovementioned issues of the anti-tax avoidance to tackle base erosion and profit shifting – where substantive changes to interest deductibility or hybrid mismatches are expected to be agreed on soon. A new proposal to increase tax transparency of multinational companies has also just been brought forward and later this year more work on a harmonized EU corporate tax base is expected.
But whilst the pace in acting affirmatively towards tax avoidance is laudable, the speed of the legislative process – leaving only a narrow window for the business community and experts to provide input – entails the risk that whilst the starting point and pace was benevolent and laudable, the end result might lead to unwarranted damages – as is always the risk, when regulation is hastened forward.