Luxembourg Leopard & His Spots

Here’s the latest EU scandal – yes, with the new Commission not even a week old! – and it might be a biggie. It broke this morning:

Oooh, «accords secrets» – secret accords! They’re linked with that “343,” that’s the number of multinational companies to which the Luxembourg granted sweetheart tax deals to come and operate there. This has just emerged from a leak from the offices of Pricewaterhouse Coopers there, which itself earned handsomely in taking up the role of negotiating with the Luxembourg government on those companies’ behalf for these tax-breaks. According to the report cited in this piece in the Tribune de Genève,

While in Luxembourg the tax rate for companies is officially 29%, which is decent [honnête] in international terms, that often passes below 1% after negotiations with the tax authorities.

The important thing to remember here is that multinationals routinely distort their official accounts, through tricks that go under the general name of transfer pricing, to show as much income as they can as coming from a place like Luxembourg where it is subject to the least taxation. Of course, the income has really been overwhelmingly earned elsewhere, in other countries – and those countries thereby effectively have had legitimate tax revenues stolen from them, in often mind-boggling quantities.

The company names sampled in this brief piece are what you would expect: Apple, Amazon, Heinz, Pepsi, Ikea, Deutsche Bank, and also a handful of Swiss companies (as this Swiss newspaper notes): UBS, Credit Suisse, Lombard Odier private bankers (remind you at all of “odious”?), and others. Indeed, with respect to the American companies on this list, their management has to cheat governments out of taxes using techniques like these, in order to increase earnings – otherwise they can be sued by shareholders for breach of fiduciary duty! Behold the face of late twentieth-century/twenty-first century Capitalism!

What really makes this development juicy is of course the identity of the brand-new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who was Prime Minister of Luxembourg from 1995 to 2013 when presumably all or at least most of these sweetheart tax-deals were negotiated. Now, it’s true that it was pressure from the outgoing Commission that recently Ireland to close its notorious “double Irish” tax loophole (well, at least over the next four years) that enables multinationals to evade enormous amounts in taxes owed elsewhere. The legal justification wielded was that such generous tax terms in effect amounted to “state aid,” which is forbidden to EU member-states.

That same rationale can obviously be brought to bear now on these Luxembourgish arrangements. But will it? As @TeacherDude puts it:

Juncker is going to have to change his spots, and quick. This development is precisely the last thing the EU needs after last May’s elections that saw so many new MEPs elected from extremist parties, reflecting a souring on the EU on the part of the European electorate. Already Marine Le Pen, whose Front National is prominent among those extremist parties, is calling on Juncker to resign from his very new Commission President position .

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