The Global Tax Marathon: the US Wins, Ireland Comes in Second, and Europe Loses

Photo: Janet Yellen meets with Valdis Dombrovskis in Brussels. Credit: @SecYellen
Photo: Janet Yellen meets with Valdis Dombrovskis in Brussels. Credit: @SecYellen

The tax marathon still has some rough terrain to cover before reaching the finish line.

The finish line to the years-long marathon on global tax reform has been reached. The US is the front runner. The unlikely contender for the silver medal is Ireland, which has run a successful defensive race. Europe, having conceded ground, finishes in the back in the field.

In Washington, the draft agreement is seen as a hands-down US victory. The US aimed to limit the number of American companies captured by the new arrangements, to spread the tax net beyond the digital sector, to ensure a global minimum tax level, and to halt Europe’s move to digital service taxes.

It can claim at least a partial victory on all fronts.

Few multinationals will be taxed where they do business and accrue profits. The key Pillar One proposal on this principle will apply only to multinationals with a global turnover of over EUR 20 billion and profitability above 10 percent. Only a tiny fraction of the world’s largest companies will be captured. The OECD suggests that approximately 100 companies will be impacted while other estimates put the figure as low as 80 companies.

The US was less successful on the minimum tax rate. The Biden administration sought a minimum rate of 21 percent. The final agreement provides a 15 percent minimum rate.

But Washington won a hands-down victory on digital service taxes. The announced agreement requires “all parties to remove all Digital Services Taxes and other relevant similar measures — and to commit not to introduce such measures in the future.”

Like the US, Ireland came to the negotiating table with specific objectives. While Dublin stands to lose more than EUR 2 billion under the agreement’s Pillar One provisions, its priority was to block the proposal for a minimum tax rate of “at least 15 percent.” It saw this wording as threatening its tax structure that has attracted major foreign, mostly American, tech investment. Ireland was not prepared to allow an ambiguously worded agreement to tee up future hazards for its decades-long policy of low and stable corporate tax rates.

A related concern was that any agreed minimum rate would not apply to businesses with a turnover below EUR 750 million.  Gritty determination paid off. Ireland received three assurances, the words “at least” would be dropped, Ireland could retain its 12.5 percent corporate tax rate for businesses below the EUR 750 million threshold – benefitting 99.9 percent of the companies operating in Ireland. The European Commission agreed to “gold plate” this agreement when transposing it to E.U. law.

These assurances make it unlikely that multinationals currently based in Ireland will shut up shop – there will be no tax advantage in doing so. The fight to retain tax certainty will not have gone unnoticed in major corporations contemplating future investments.

The EU has lost ground. Although the new arrangements will boost tax revenues for some European governments, the gain will be modest, and some member states will lose revenue.

To a surprising degree, Europe has signed up for constraints that limit the extent to which the draft agreement will deliver real reforms in the global tax system. Principles have been compromised and little gained.  Europe allowed the US to limit the application of the key principle that major multinationals should pay profits where they do business and take profit. Only a fraction of the multinationals’ profits captured will be available for distribution in Europe.

Europe, which sees itself at the forefront in the climate debate, has signed up for the extraordinary decision to exclude multinationals in the oil, gas, and mining sectors from the global tax reform arrangements – rewarding companies with appalling environmental records.

Europe has also decided to exclude the banking sector from the tax reforms, a decision which a study released in July estimates will cut the revenues coming under the agreement by 50 percent. These exclusions and carve-outs will mean that most multinational profits will continue to be taxed based on corporate residency as they are at present.

Arguably, the Digital Service Taxes which the EU has agreed to drop could deliver more revenue.

These aspects of the agreement which have largely gone unnoticed in the OECD process will come in for closer scrutiny when the final proposals come for discussion in national European parliaments and the European Parliament. Expect pushback.

Even closer scrutiny of the marathon results can be expected when the legislation comes before the partisan US Congress. The tax marathon still has some rough terrain to cover before reaching the finish line.

Dick Roche was the Minister of State for European Affairs when Ireland conducted the two referendums on the Treaty of Lisbon of the European Union in 2008 and 2009.

This article was originally published by EURACTIV. EURACTIV is an independent pan-European media network specialized in EU affairs including government, business, and civil society.