The European Commission’s War Against Low Corporate Taxes

I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

On the plus side, I admire corporations that efficiently and effectively compete by producing valuable goods and services for consumers, and I aggressively defend those firms from politicians who want to impose harmful and destructive forms of taxes, regulation, and intervention.

On the minus side, I am disgusted by corporations that get in bed with politicians to push policies that undermine competition and free markets, and I strongly oppose all forms of cronyism and coercion that give big firms unearned and undeserved wealth.

With this in mind, let’s look at two controversies from the field of corporate taxation, both involving the European Commission (the EC is the Brussels-based bureaucracy that is akin to an executive branch for the European Union).

Corporate Taxes
Photo by Tax Credits

U.S. Treasury Department vs. the European Commission

First, there’s a big fight going on between the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC. As reported by Bloomberg, it’s a battle over whether European governments should be able to impose higher tax burdens on American-domiciled multinationals.

The U.S. is stepping up its effort to convince the European Commission to refrain from hitting Apple Inc. and other companies with demands for possibly billions of euros… In a white paper released Wednesday, the Treasury Department in Washington said the Brussels-based commission is taking on the role of a “supra-national tax authority” that has the scope to threaten global tax reform deals. …The commission has initiated investigations into tax rulings that Apple, Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. received in separate EU nations. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has written previously that the investigations appear “to be targeting U.S. companies disproportionately.” The commission’s spokesman said Wednesday that EU law “applies to all companies operating in Europe — there is no bias against U.S. companies.”

[Editor’s Note: Since this article was originally published, the EC has hit Apple with a $14.5 billion tax bill.]

As you can imagine, I have a number of thoughts about this spat.

  • First, don’t give the Obama Administration too much credit for being on the right side of the issue. The Treasury Department is motivated in large part by a concern that higher taxes imposed by European governments would mean less ability to collect tax by the U.S. government.
  • Second, complaints by the US about a “supra-national tax authority” are extremely hypocritical since the Obama White House has signed the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which effectively would create a nascent World Tax Organization (the pact is thankfully being blocked by Senator Rand Paul).
  • Third, hypocrisy by the US doesn’t change the fact that the European Commission bureaucrats are in the wrong because their argument is based on the upside-down notion that low tax burdens are a form of “state aid.”
  • Fourth, Europeans are in the wrong because the various national governments should simply adjust their “transfer pricing” rules if they think multinational companies are playing games to under-state profits in high-tax nations and over-state profits in low-tax nations.
  • Fifth, the Europeans are in the wrong because low corporate tax rates are the best way to curtail unproductive forms of tax avoidance.
  • Sixth, some European nations are in the wrong if they don’t allow domestic companies to enjoy the low tax rates imposed on multinational firms.

European Union vs. Switzerland

Since we’re on the topic of corporate tax rates and the European Commission, let’s shift from Brussels to Geneva and see an example of good tax policy in action. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report about how a Swiss canton is responding in the right way to an attack by the EC.

When the European Union pressured Switzerland to scrap tax breaks for foreign companies, Geneva had most to lose. Now, the canton that’s home to almost 1,000 multinationals is set to use tax to burnish its appeal. Geneva will on Aug. 30 propose cutting its corporate tax rate to 13.49 percent from 24.2 percent…the new regime will improve the Swiss city’s competitive position, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. “I could see Geneva going up very high in the ranks,” said Thierry Boitelle, a lawyer at Bonnard Lawson in the city…A rate of about 13 percent would see Geneva jump 13 places to become the third-most attractive of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

This puts a big smile on my face.

Geneva is basically doing the same thing Ireland did many years ago when it also was attacked by Brussels for having a very low tax rate on multinational firms while taxing domestic firms at a higher rate.

The Irish responded to the assault by implementing a very low rate for all businesses, regardless of whether they were local firms or global firms. And the Irish economy benefited immensely.

Now it’s happening again, which must be very irritating for the bureaucrats in Brussels since the attack on Geneva (just like the attack on Ireland) was designed to force tax rates higher rather than lower.

As a consequence, in one fell swoop, Geneva will now be one of the most competitive cantons in Switzerland.

Corporate Taxes

Here’s another reason I’m smiling.

The Geneva reform will put even more pressure on the tax-loving French.

France, which borders the canton to the south, east and west, has a tax rate of 33.33 percent… Within Europe, Geneva’s rate would only exceed a number of smaller economies such as Ireland’s 12.5 percent and Montenegro, which has the region’s lowest rate of 9 percent. That will mean Geneva competes with Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. as a low-tax jurisdiction.

Though the lower tax rate in Geneva is not a sure thing.

We’ll have to see if local politicians follow through on this announcement. And there also may be a challenge from left-wing voters, something made possible by Switzerland’s model of direct democracy.

Opposition to the new rate from left-leaning political parties will probably trigger a referendum as it would only require 500 signatures.

Though I suspect the “sensible Swiss” of Geneva will vote the right way, at least if the results from an adjoining canton are any indication.

In a March plebiscite in the neighboring canton of Vaud, 87.1 percent of voters backed cutting the corporate tax rate to 13.79 percent from 21.65 percent.

So I fully expect voters in Geneva will make a similarly wise choice, especially since they are smart enough to realize that high tax rates won’t collect much money if the geese with the golden eggs fly away.

Failure to agree on a competitive tax rate in Geneva could result in an exodus of multinationals, cutting cantonal revenues by an even greater margin, said Denis Berdoz, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Geneva, who specializes in tax and corporate law. “They don’t really have a choice,” said Berdoz. “If the companies leave, the loss could be much higher.”

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

Geneva’s Tax Burden Removal

Now let’s understand why the development in Geneva is a good thing (and why the EC effort to impose higher taxes on US-based multinational is a bad thing).

Simply stated, high corporate tax burdens are bad for workers and the overall economy.

In a recent column for

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