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EU pushes through corporate tax avoidance rules

EU tax avoidance

​The European Union may well be occupied with the news of the UK's shock exit, which has unsurprisingly shot to the top of the agenda since June 23rd's referendum, but there are a number of other issues currently on the minds of EU leaders.

Talk has already begun about what Brexit means for the future of the EU, with leaders across the continent urging member states not to resort any knee-jerk reactions when it comes to forming a response to Britain's departure.

Given the rumblings coming out of Brussels before Thursday's vote, one of the main priorities that will need to be addressed is how best to push ahead with plans to combat corporate tax avoidance.

Before the result from the UK, member states agreed a package of measures based on OECD recommendations to overhaul the global tax system and make it more difficult for companies operating across borders to take advantage of disparities in member states’ tax architecture.

Estimates suggest that member states from across the EU lose between €50-70 billion in revenues every year due to corporate tax avoidance.

This latest package has already been agreed by the European Council and is scheduled to formally implemented during a forthcoming council meeting.

The measures will reportedly help prevent a number of common tricks used by multinational firms to lower their tax bills, including limits on interest deductions, which will help to ensure companies are discouraged from financing operations in countries with higher tax rates with debt that is then used to pay back inflated interest to subsidiaries in low-tax jurisdictions.

This rather complicated practice is largely aimed at reducing the overall tax bill of a company, causing plenty of controversy in the process.

There will also be measures that will address member states charging tax on assets or profits that have been moved to a lower tax jurisdiction - a practice known as exit taxation. 

The new package will also contain a “general anti-abuse rule” that will aim to give more powers to EU member states in order to tackle tax avoidance schemes that due to their complexity, or indeed how new they happen to be, are not covered by specific legislation.

While EU ministers had expected to reach a deal on the proposals last month, it has so far failed to materialise, with experts divided on the best way to progress.

Despite many experts insisting that the measures are in line with those outlined by the OECD, critics have labelled them "weak" and "diluted to the point of making them almost meaningless, especially on anti-tax haven rules”.

Diarmid O'Sullivan, tax policy advisor at ActionAid, told Public Finance International: “Efforts at meaningful reform in Europe have been undermined by the determination of some countries, like the UK, to undercut each other on tax. We call on European countries not to be limited by this feeble compromise but to adopt much stronger national rules which deter tax avoidance by big companies at home and in developing countries."

Nevertheless, the measures were agreed up by all EU leaders last week, despite the initial threat of a veto from Prague.

EU Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said the rules would present “a serious blow” to any organisation or individual engaging in corporate tax avoidance, adding: “For too long, some companies have been able to take advantage of the mismatches between different Member States’ tax systems to avoid billions of euros in tax.”

But the seemingly inevitable departure of the UK, combined with several high-profile critics of the move, means that the future of cracking down on corporate tax avoidance is by no means certain.

However, it is nevertheless important that EU officials are seen to be doing something, with the recent Luxembourg Leaks and the Panama Papers scandal bringing the issue of tax avoidance to light in a way that has never been stronger.