Commission starts fight against ‘letter-box’ companies

The European Commission unveiled proposals on Monday (25 November) aiming to close a loophole that allows companies to cut their tax bill using subsidiaries in other EU member states.

The Commission wants rules to prevent companies setting up "letter-box subsidiaries" in countries solely to qualify for a softer tax regime and cut their bill.

Algirdas Šemeta, the EU's taxation commissioner, wants to insert an anti-abuse clause by the end of next year, allowing authorities to target artificial 'parent-subsidiary' schemes that flout the spirit of the tax code.

"When our rules are abused to avoid paying any tax at all, then we need to adjust them," he said. "Today's proposal will ensure that the spirit, as well as the letter, of our law is respected."

Šemeta declined to name countries or companies that exploited the loophole but said that billions of euros were at stake. One EU official, speaking anonymously, said the drive would in particular hit Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

By forcing large companies to disclose how much tax they pay to which country, Šemeta hopes they will be shamed into paying more. Without international agreement, companies will be able to arbitrage between different tax regimes.

Schemes used by Starbucks, Apple, Amazon and others, operating within the law to minimise taxes, put aggressive tax "planning" at the top of the political agenda earlier this year.

But progress in tackling the problem is likely to be slow. Europe is torn between the demands of small countries, such as Luxembourg and Ireland, fiercely resisting change to their low-tax regimes which attract foreign investment, and states such as Britain and Germany, wary of driving away big employers.

Taken at face value, the global political direction towards tax reform is clear. But Šemeta’s limited success so far points to the difficulties ahead.

His suggestion for a 'Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base' –including a standard way to calculate tax breaks – made scant progress, with countries such as Ireland, worried it would lead to a single EU tax rate.

Šemeta also wants tighter control of so-called hybrid financing, where companies take advantage of varying definitions of loans versus equity stakes between countries to cut their tax bill.

Background

The European Commission has long sought to harmonise national corporate tax systems, claiming that this will contribute to its goal of creating more growth and jobs in Europe and boosting the competitiveness of EU companies.

Currently, there are 28 different systems in Europe for calculating a company's taxable earnings, making it costly and burdensome for businesses to operate in several member states. The Commission says creating a single tax base will encourage cross-border activities and investments. 

The idea of a common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB) was initially voiced in a 2001 communication but progress has been slow due to member states' reluctance to allow the Commission to encroach upon their national sovereignty in this area. 

A first report on progress to date and next steps towards a CCCTB was issued in April 2006. The Commission followed up a year later with a communication outlining the remaining steps to be taken to establish a single tax base for European companies by 2010.

But the plan has since been stuck in the pipeline due to opposition from at least seven member states, which fear losing their sovereignty over national tax. When the first progress report was debated in 2006, 12 countries were in favour and seven – Ireland, the UK, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Malta and Cyprus – were against. The rest were still undecided.

Timeline

  • 1 Jan. - 30 June 2014: Commission likely to unveil new proposal on the common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB).

Further Reading