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Apple’s €13bn Irish tax bill does not contain seeds of change

Opinion: If EU and US politicians wanted to change the corporate tax system they would

Apple held $215 billion in cash and other assets outside the United States as of June, according to the Wall Street Journal. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

So: Europe wants cash-rich, oh-so-very-cash-rich Apple to pay Ireland €13 billion in back taxes. Plus, another €6 billion in interest.

Wow. That’s a lot of Apple Watch sales.

As an Opposition deputy pointed out on Tuesday, just the €13 billion, should it ever actually be paid to Revenue, would be enough to build more than 80,000 family homes for those on the lengthy social housing waiting list.

On the other hand, it comes to barely more than a third of the cost of bailing out Anglo Irish Bank. That beefy sum is also just slightly more than the cost to date of servicing the debt of all the State’s various bank bailouts, which are estimated to cost up to €1.7 billion annually (and had come to €9 billion as of last year, according to the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General).

But to put all of that into perspective, the Wall Street Journal notes that Apple had $215 billion in cash and other assets held outside the United States as of June.

Well, they can’t repatriate it to the US without incurring a 33 per cent tax charge there, so why not fork a little of that over here to our needy Irish coffers?

But wait! We don’t want the money. Oh, no, we don’t want it at all. No only do we not want it, we are ready to challenge the European Commission’s ruling so that none of the other big multinationals headquartered here for whatever purpose gets stuck having to give us money, either.

The Irish position, which surely will encourage a playwright somewhere to try her hand at a farce, or at least inspire a Ross O’Carroll-Kelly column or a new song from the Nualas, has been met with a tone of disbelief in some US and European coverage.

Huffing and puffing

But really, it’s the whole ridiculous US and international tax fiasco and the ritual, but largely meaningless, huffing and puffing by various officials and politicians in the US and Europe that is most laughable.

It’s all one big game in which politicians don’t really want to change things all that much.

Otherwise they would.

For example: as has been shown in the past, while European officials pontificate about Irish tax rates, many of the countries complaining loudly also heavily subsidise their own state-owned industries, and dangle tax cuts, grants and other incentives to multinational businesses, just in an opaque fashion that makes it more difficult to see from abroad.

And over in the US, the hypocritical Congress could change the country’s tax system any old time it wanted, to effectively address most of the (fully legal) tax-evasion tactics it claims to despise.

I mean, just relish for a moment, the heights we are reaching here in ludicrous rhetoric. The US government is formally complaining that, with this ruling, Europe is making a claim to US taxpayer money.

Well, then go get it, right? An onlooker might justifiably take the view that if the US isn’t going to collect those taxes off Apple, then Europe might as well go ahead and do it.

Repatriation

Meanwhile, much US discussion has focused on whether Congress, or a new president, will bring in new tax laws to encourage multinationals to repatriate the gazillions they hold offshore.

There’s a lot of money out there – the top 50 US companies hold an estimated $1.4 trillion (€1.25 trillion) offshore to avoid US taxes, according to a report this year by Oxfam America. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed charging a flat rate of 10 per cent to lure some of it back.

But going unmentioned in almost all these discussions is the fact that the offshore cash stockpile is already regularly repatriated, quietly and at about 10-year intervals, under what has become something of a tradition, a handy discount tax amnesty.

So that $1.4 trillion isn’t going to remain offshore indefinitely. The multinationals know this, and the US knows this. Even the EU surely knows this.

Instead (as I have noted here a few times in the past decade), at some point in the coming years, word will go out that the discount rate is now available, and the multinationals will bring back lots of that money to the US. And then the offshore stockpiling routine will begin all over again.

Of course it is all silly and wasteful, duplicitous and evasive. But the problem isn’t of any one country’s making, and will require international cooperation to address. There’s just little political will to do much more than grandstand now and then with a ruling or pronouncement or proposal that won’t really change anything.

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