Lough Erne G8 plan could spell trouble for Ireland’s corporate tax regime
Analysis: shortage of specific action plan means issue could be long-fingered
“For the Taoiseach it was an image to die for. There’s nothing a leader likes more than proximity to more powerful leaders.” US president Barack Obama, British prime minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny take a walk at the G8 summit at Lough Erne in Fermanagh. Photograph: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland
For the Taoiseach, it was an image to die for. There’s nothing a leader likes more than proximity to more powerful leaders.
For Northern Ireland the visit of the Group of Eight was something akin to the peace dividend on steroids, a resounding global endorsement of the 1998 settlement and the gradual transformation of its society.
In question now is whether the summit itself was a success on its own terms.
For Mr Kenny more pointedly, the question is whether the clampdown on aggressive avoidance heralds trouble for Ireland’s tax regime. Potentially it does, but down the line.
Cameron, host of the summit, can point to a measure of incremental progress on contentious tax questions, trade and the transparency agenda. However, significant further action is required to bring forward the really big manoeuvres.
Putin holds out
On the vexed question of Syria, global unity remains elusive. An isolated Vladimir Putin held out against a joint demand for Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power.
Similarly, Putin’s rejection of US claims that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people led the G8 to condemn “any” use of such weapons. The G8’s strong support for a peace conference did not translate into a firm plan to bring the warring factions together.
There’s no such thing as overnight success in this game. The summit yielded the Lough Erne Declaration on tax, a 10-point plan which left out some key principles but included others which may yet cause difficulty for Dublin.
With the taxation debate increasingly cast as a moral question, moves by the G8 to prise more from the multinational sector were inevitable once Cameron put the question on the agenda for Britain’s rotating presidency of the group.
“The body battles against germs. The war is never won. It’s a continuous process of changing the locks,” said Paul Collier, the Oxford economics professor who advises Cameron on tax. “The changing of the locks has fallen behind the innovations of corporate lawyers and accountants.”
A nuanced picture emerges on tax. Absent, for example, is an explicit push for the public exposure of the egregious tax practices of big-name companies by compelling them to declare profit, revenues and tax payments country by country. As signals go, this is not without significance.
Instead, the leaders pledged in their communiqué to “work to create” a common template for multinationals to report to the tax authorities where they make their profits and pay their taxes.
No explicit measures
Absent too are explicit measures compelling secretive firms which obscure their ownership in offshore havens to sign up to an official central register. The latter had appeared to be within Cameron’s grasp and campaigners had pushed for automatic public disclosure of such a register.
However, the leaders simply agreed to publish national action plans to send information on who owns and profits from companies and trusts available to tax and law enforcement agencies. Instead of a united move towards central registries, these were mentioned by way of an example.
Similarly, the Lough Erne Declaration said companies should know who really owned them “and tax collectors and law enforcers should be able to obtain this information easily”.
While the aspiration is clear enough, it does not amount to an enforceable legal obligation on the companies themselves. That is a key difference.
Of greater relevance – for Ireland specifically – is the G8’s call on countries to change rules that let companies shift their profits across borders to avoid taxes. No timeline, deadline or specific legal measures are mentioned.
While the central thrust is unambiguous, this still looks more like an incremental measure, not something which will bring the wheels of evasion and hard-charging avoidance to an immediate halt.
When Obama arrived in the White House in 2009 there was plenty talk about resolute action to take more tax from big business. Four years later, this is still in the realm of talk.
This is the backdrop to which Mr Kenny gave a cautious welcome to the declaration, making a point of saying Ireland would work within the new framework. The Taoiseach could hardly have said otherwise.
The sense remains, however, that Dublin will move only if everyone else moves too. Such action could be a while coming, as demonstrated by a declaration that’s big on aspiration but short enough on specifics.
As for the trade agenda, the summit delivered the expected kick-start of formal trade talks between the US and Europe. However, a deal could be two or more years away and there are numerous potential pitfalls.
On transparency, the leaders pledged to work towards common global reporting standards to make extractive industry payments from mining and the like more transparent.
They also pledged to work with resource-rich countries to help them better manage their revenues from these activities.
One of the main ideas here was to clamp down on bribery by forcing companies into more transparent reporting of all payments they make.
Indeed, the Lough Erne principals state that extractive companies should report payments to all governments and that governments should publish income from such companies.
The aspiration is again clear, but translating it into enforceable rules applicable across borders is something else.