US multinationals such as Google, Facebook and Amazon will be forced to publicly disclose their earnings and tax bills in Europe, under legislation being drafted by the EU executive.
The European Commission is to table legislation in early April aimed at making the world’s largest multinational corporations open their tax arrangements with EU governments to full public scrutiny.
According to three senior EU officials familiar with the proposals, initial conclusions from an ongoing impact assessment have found in favour of obliging large corporations to reveal their profits and the tax they pay in every country in which they operate within the EU.
The commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, is said to be in favour of the initiative. A consensus has formed around making the rules apply to the world’s biggest conglomerates, including those from the US, the officials said.
Eurocrats “are currently finalising the impact assessment work. It’s likely there will be some form of legislative initiative announced for the beginning of April … for public country-by-country reporting,” said a source.
“It will likely target the large multinationals, all multinationals and not just EU ones,” said a second source. The impact assessment had “really swayed opinion” inside the commission in favour of public reporting.
Public country-by-country reporting is seen as important because without it large companies are more able to make secretive deals with governments on where and how they declare their profits.
The commission was heavily criticised last month when it proposed that corporations report only to national tax authorities in Europe without making the information public.
The new draft is to be presented on 12 April. Tax legislation in the EU requires the agreement of all 28 governments. However, the sources said the new rules would be effected by amending one of two existing directives, meaning they can be passed by a qualified majority, or 16 of the 28.
Outrage over how the multinationals minimise their tax liabilities in Europe erupted in 2014 because of the so-called Luxleaks revelations, media exposure of how hundreds of global companies including Pepsi, Ikea and FedEx had secured secret sweetheart tax deals with Luxembourg, allowing them to save billions of euros in taxes.
Juncker was Luxembourg’s finance minister and prime minister between 1995 and 2009.
The competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has already found Starbucks in the Netherlands and Fiat in Luxembourg culpable of tax avoidance and ordered them to pay €30m (23m) each in unpaid taxes. Last month she also ordered 35 multinationals in Belgium to pay €700m in dodged taxes. Similar investigations are ongoing into Apple in Ireland and Amazon in Luxembourg.
The revenue threshold for companies ordered to report their earnings and taxes publicly has not yet been agreed. However, officials said the new rules will apply only to all “large” global multinationals, meaning US companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook will fall under its scope.
This will anger Washington, which is already on the warpath over what it perceives as partial targeting of the big US digital companies by the EU.
Robert Stack, the US Treasury’s deputy assistant secretary for international tax affairs, said last month he is concerned about the “basic fairness” of investigations of US companies and their tax affairs in Europe. Meanwhile the commission has said it will consider adding Google’s heavily criticised £130m tax deal with the UK to its lengthy list of inquiries.
Tove Maria Ryding, tax justice coordinator for the European Network on Debt and Development , a group of 46 NGOs fighting for a fairer global financial system, said that if the commission chooses to limit public reporting to large companies – those with more than €750m in annual turnover – then 85% of the world’s multinationals would be unaffected.
“That would obviously be a very big problem,” she said. “If you want to have a situation where small and medium-sized enterprises who don’t use these tax structures can compete, then we can’t leave 85% of the multinationals with very obvious loopholes that mean that they can avoid taxation.”
John Christensen, executive director of Tax Justice Network, an activist group whose aim is to expose the systematic abuse of the international tax system, applauded the plans to make the multinationals reveal profits and taxes paid in each country where they do business.
“For a very long time big companies have been saying their tax affairs are a matter of competitive confidentiality,” he said. “We think it is incredibly important as a matter of principle that this information is made public.”
The impact assessment is said to have dismissed corporate complaints about commercial competitiveness being damaged by public disclosure.
In late January, the commission launched an anti-tax-avoidance package that contained a series of legislative proposals aimed at preventing aggressive tax planning through measures such as limiting the amount of interest companies are entitled to deduct from their annual profits and making country-by-country reporting obligatory between the EU’s tax administrations. Campaign groups criticised the proposals for not going far enough.