In the aftermath of the EU’s latest escalation in its tax war with US multinational corporations, the rebuke from the US was swift, stretching from the US Treasury all the way to Congress: according to Kevin Brady, the House Ways and Means Chairman, the EU Apple decision was “predatory and naked tax grab.” Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat on the committee, said that the EU is unfairly undermining U.S. companies’ ability to compete in Europe. Naturally, the Treasury also chimed in, and a spokesperson said that “the Commission’s actions could threaten to undermine foreign investment, the business climate in Europe, and the important spirit of economic partnership between the U.S. and the EU.”
Naturally, the US would confine itself only to heated words: after all, there was little chance Washington would do anything to truly jeopardize trade relations between the two core trading partners, and Europe knows it.
However, with Europe desperate to boost its dwindling public coffers and only beginning its anti-tax avoidance campaign, AAPL was merely the start in the European Commission’s crackdown. As the WSJ writes, following today’s ruling that Apple got an unfair advantage over its competitors because of help it got from Ireland government’s, the EU’s antitrust regulator is likely next to turn to two other ongoing tax investigations on its docket: Amazon.com and McDonald’s.
The EU regulator has previously disclosed that it is looking at the arrangements both companies have with tax authorities in Luxembourg. In the case of McDonald’s, the WSJ reports that antitrust commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in 2015 that the investigation concerned a 2009 tax ruling granted to a Luxembourg unit of the restaurant chain, called McDonald’s Europe Franchising, that resulted in the fast-food chain “paying no tax on their European royalties either in Luxembourg or in the U.S.” The unit, which collects royalty fees from McDonald’s franchisees across Europe and Russia, recorded a profit of more than €250 million in 2013 alone, the commission said.
As for Amazon, the tax ruling in question dates back to 2003. It applies to an Amazon subsidiary based in Luxembourg called Amazon EU Sarl. Investigators said in 2014 that “most of Amazon’s European profits” were routed through the unit, but that the structure of the subsidiary made it so that those profits were not taxed in Luxembourg.
We expect Google, which has infamously used the “Dutch sandwich” legal tax evasion scheme for years, will eventually make its way in Europe’s crosshairs too.
Vestager on Tuesday gave no concrete timing on when the two investigations would come to a close.
Just like Ireland, Luxembourg has denied giving the companies special treatment, and both Amazon and McDonald’s have said they believe they’ve been paying their European taxes appropriately. However both multinational companies warn in their annual report that they could end up on the hook for more if the investigations don’t go their way.
In addition to US corporations’ rising tax problems at the Commission level, companies operating in Europe are also facing increased enforcement efforts at a national level. Authorities in Spain and France recently have raided offices of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and French authorities have demanded more than €1 billion in back taxes and fines from the company. Alphabet says it’s paid all the taxes it owes.
Considering the deteriorating state of Europe’s projected financials, in big part a result of Europe’s declining tax base as millions of aging workers are set to retire and instead of contributing will become a drain of government cash, we expect today’s dramatic crackdown against Apple to be only the beginning of a long slog which will ultimately hurt Europe itself. Consider that despite its receipt of €13 billion, the biggest loser from today’s decision is Ireland itself. As Reuters comments, Dublin already faces a competitive threat from the United Kingdom, which once outside the EU may cut its own corporate tax rate. According to Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute, a 1 percentage point cut in the UK corporate tax rate could reduce the probability of non-EU states sending foreign direct investment into Ireland by 4 percent. Irish firms send 44 percent of their exports to the UK, so future trade barriers could mess up Ireland’s economic recovery.
The size of Apple’s potential bill puts Ireland in even more of a corner. While on one hand a 13 billion euro payment would be a windfall for the Irish people, it’s also a big blow to competitiveness if companies fear past dealings could be subject to retrospective meddling. Ireland could simply lower the corporate tax rate across the board. Other countries in the EU with less competitive rates would be among the losers.
To be sure, the full impact of the unwind of Europe’s tax policies will take many years; the bigger question is whether, as a result of the ongoing nationalist, refugee and social upheavals, there will even be a Europe in several years.
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