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US proposal lifts hopes for global minimum tax deal

The US breathed new hope into global tax talks with a proposal, welcomed by Germany and France on Friday, to set a minimum rate of 15 percent on profits of multinationals worldwide.

Washington floated the idea Thursday as part of US President Joe Biden’s push to find an agreement with major economies on imposing a shared minimum corporate rate to end a race to lower taxes.

France and Germany are the eurozone’s biggest economies and their support is key at talks taking place on the subject at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and G20.

Arriving for a meeting with eurozone counterparts in Portugal, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Paris “can live with 15 percent, it can be a good compromise”.

However, “the key question is not the figure”, Le Maire said, insisting that a quick political agreement was key and needed no later than a G20 meeting in Italy in July.

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz hailed the US proposal as a “breakthrough” that brought negotiations to a “point where we can see that we will make it”.

The OECD negotiations are intended to stop what Washington calls a “race to the bottom” among countries to see who can offer the lowest rate.

In Europe, France and Germany are key backers of the idea, but questions remain from smaller EU member states whose economies depend on keeping taxes low to attract big companies.

The 15-percent tax rate is lower than in many Western countries — France plans to lower its tax on corporate profits to 25 percent by 2022, while the US wants to raise its own from 21 percent to 28 percent, for example.

But it is higher than in Ireland, which is at 12.5 percent and which gives big firms rates even lower than that, as well as in Bulgaria or Hungary.

“The discussions are still open,” said Pierre Gramegna, Luxembourg’s finance minister, whose low-tax country is headquarters for Amazon and other multinationals.

“As long as it is a common agreed level for all of us, it makes life easier for everybody,” he added.

– ‘All efforts’ –

The real shock of a 15 percent tax rate would be felt in the tiny jurisdictions whose names crop up in tax scandals or in reporting on elaborate schemes used by firms to cut their tax bill.

Modestly called “jurisdictions with no or insignificant taxes” by the OECD, these include places like the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, Jersey, Guernsey, the United Arab Emirates and many others.

These states play a major role in so-called “tax optimisation” schemes, often legal, which consist of shifting profits in a complicated game of subsidiaries, royalties, licences, and other accounting tricks to find the lowest tax rates.

Negotiations have been underway for years at the OECD to establish a harmonised tax rate on the profits of multinationals, with a special ambition to better capture the profits of US-based tech giants.

After going nowhere, the discussions were revived with the arrival of Biden in the White House.

On Thursday, his administration proposed to OECD partners to set the tax rate on multinationals at at least 15 percent, according to the US Treasury, the first time the US has formally proposed a global minimum rate.

The OECD, which brings together 36 of the world’s richest countries, is hoping to reach an agreement in principle at the G20 Finance meeting on July 9-10, and then at a final meeting in October.

“The prospect of reaching a global solution … of international tax reform is now concrete”, said Italian Finance Minister Daniele Franco.

Italy, which holds the G20 presidency, was making “all the efforts” to clinch the deal in July, he added.

In addition to a global minimum rate, the reform negotiated by the OECD also seeks that multinationals be taxed on profits made in each country, regardless of where their head office is located.

This second point is aimed in particular at big tech, which often pay taxes in countries like Ireland or Luxembourg that bear no relation to the income and profits they generate locally.

However, Washington will insist that non-digital companies also be subject to the new rule, which would have a big impact on non-US corporate giants as well.