Luxembourg’s PM refuses to see European values ‘erased with tipp-ex’

Xavier Bettel [C], pictured with fellow countryman Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk. [European Commission]

A lack of community spirit on the part of Europe’s leaders has stalled the European project, according to Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. He also called on the EU to take a hard stance against the UK. EURACTIV France reports.

“At European level, it is not easy! Brussels is talked about like it’s a UFO. But Brussels is us,” insisted Xavier Bettel at a meeting with journalists in Paris yesterday (10 October).

The Luxembourger lamented the lack of community spirit on the part of European politicians and hearkened back to the Europe of 1957, the Europe of Robert Schuman, the founding father of the European peace project.

“Working and coming together just doesn’t exist, everything is seen through a national dimension,” he said, criticising European heads of state and government for going to Brussels more concerned with what their national media will report over anything else of substance.

“It’s not working,” Bettel insisted, before complaining about his experience of the informal EU-27 Council meeting in Bratislava in September.

“In Bratislava, the discussions were really screwed up,” admitted the prime minister, adding that at one point he nearly slammed the door in frustration at the progress of the talks.

Brexit pushes EU towards multiple unions

As the EU enters a period of reflection after the UK referendum, some of its members seem to be moving towards a more variable geometry under which they seek to align by regional affinity.

Bettel also indicated his concern at the outcome of the referendum in Hungary, which was only rendered null and void due to low turnout. The result otherwise was an overwhelming rejection of EU refugee policy. Luxembourg’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jean Asselborn, had previously called for Hungary to be ejected from the bloc.

When asked about this, Bettel insisted that “these are just the words of Mr Asselborn, not the position of the Luxembourg government”; however, he did add that “European values of solidarity cannot just be erased with tipp-ex!”.

Luxembourg foreign minister wants Hungary out of EU

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, has called for Hungary to be thrown out of the European Union. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Bloomberg reported yesterday that Bettel also suggested the Schengen visa-free travel zone be shut down for 24 hours to remind people of the benefits of EU membership. “Shutting the frontiers for a day would show people what it means to wait two hours to get into Italy or Spain,” he suggested.

Brexit, on the minds of all EU leaders, also concerns the Luxembourg premier. Bettel said that he hoped the issue “will not get out of control” and also expressed concern about recent reports that the UK government would require companies to compile lists of foreign workers. Westminster has since backtracked on this particular issue.

Like his Belgian and French counterparts, Bettel is in favour of a tough stance towards the UK during the upcoming negotiations. He recalled that the EU suspended talks with Switzerland after the alpine nation tried to curb immigration from the EU, in particular from its newest member, Croatia.

Bettel also criticised the UK for already sounding out possible trading partners for when it will need to negotiate its own bilateral agreements. “We’re not even divorced yet and they’re looking for mistresses and lovers!”

The Luxembourger is a fan of metaphors when it comes to international politics. At the Bratislava summit, he said that “Europe is not Facebook: there is no ‘It’s complicated’ relationship status”. He is another EU leader that has called upon the UK to activate Article 50 and formally start its withdrawal as soon as possible.

But behind all the metaphors, Bettel wants to convey a message of tolerance.

“I’m of Polish and Russian origin, with Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox and atheist grandparents. I’m gay and I’m married. I represent the minority of minorities and yet I have been able to become prime minister. Could that have happened on any other continent?” he asked, perhaps rhetorically.

When queried about the issue of tax rulings, scandalously brought to light by the 2014 LuxLeaks affair, the prime minister said that the European Commission’s recent ruling against Apple showed that there are tax rulings even lower elsewhere, referring to the paltry 0.015% tax rate paid by the American tech giant in Ireland. “Ours is a minimum of 1%,” Bettel added.

EU says Apple must repay €13 billion over ‘illegal’ Irish tax deal

The European Commission said on Tuesday (30 August) that US tech company Apple must repay €13 billion in back taxes after ruling that a series of Irish tax deals were illegal.

The prime minister does support the OECD’s recommendations on tax avoidance, including base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS), but has not ruled out the idea of contesting a ruling from the Commission like the one levied against Apple.

“If the decision is not legally sound, then rest assured I’ll go on the attack,” confirmed the former lawyer. The executive is currently investigating allegations that Luxembourg granted illegal state aid to McDonald’s through preferential tax rulings. The fast food outlet’s European branch is headquartered in the Duchy.

Bettel also indicated his scepticism towards unifying corporate tax law across the bloc, saying that each country has its own habits and peculiarities when it comes to collecting levies. “In Luxembourg, we have a reduced VAT rate for children’s shoes and we don’t have inheritance tax. There’s no reason to harmonise if it’s not necessary,” he insisted.

In March 2011, the executive proposed the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB), a common system of business tax calculation. The executive intends to have a second go at launching the set of rules later this year.

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