Amazon's tax avoidance can only be solved at EU level

Little-Britainism won't help us here.

The revelation in The Guardian last week that Amazon pays no UK corporation tax has prompted much anguish. How can a company that is the UK's largest online retailer with annual sales in the UK of £3.3bn get away with this? Tim Waterstone, founder of the high street book store chain, weighed in with a column in the same paper bemoaning Amazon's "contemptuous, arrogant and subversive" approach.

Despite all the attention on Amazon's behaviour, few solutions to the Amazon problem have been proposed. It's not as if the multinational is going to easily be shamed into paying more tax, and as Waterstone admits, Amazon is acting within the letter of the law.

The solution is instead to look at how tax systems work within the European Union and – shock horror – solve these issues at EU level.

There is a general consensus in the United Kingdom that being part of the EU's single market is a good thing. It allows a UK bookseller to ship its products to Luxembourg, and a Luxembourg bookseller to ship to the UK. There are no cumbersome tariffs or customs procedures involved in doing this. As consumers we win. Yet as taxpayers we increasingly lose.

The first problem is with Value Added Tax (VAT). Paper books have zero-rate VAT in the UK, while e-books are defined as electronic products and are subject to VAT at 20 per cent. Luxembourg, following the lead of France, has reduced VAT on e-books to three per cent. So Kindle e-books sold by the Luxembourg-headquartered Amazon EU Sarl, have a 17 per cent price advantage over the same publication sold by a UK-based e-book seller, even when bought by a customer residing in the UK.

In 2015 the EU VAT rules are due to change, meaning the country of residence of the purchaser will determine the VAT rate, but in the fast-paced technology sector the next three years are going to be crucial - how many UK-based booksellers are going to even be left by 2015?

The second problem is with corporation tax, both the rate of corporation tax and how you define the profits on which it is levied. Ireland's low 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate is one of the reasons both Google and Apple have their EU headquarters there. However Luxembourg is not an especially low corporation tax regime – its headline rate of 28.59 per cent is higher than the UK's rates. The attraction of Luxembourg for Amazon is instead that the costs that can be offset against income are defined differently. This allows for Amazon to have a lower taxable income if based in Luxembourg rather than in the UK.

The European Commission has realised that this is a problem for more than a decade, having repeatedly attempted to work towards a common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB), yet so far to no avail. The idea is that the definition of profits eligible to be taxed in all EU countries would be the same, yet the actual corporation tax rate would continue to vary.

Tax matters at EU level require the unanimous agreement of all EU member states and the UK and Ireland, among others, have refused to be drawn on the corporation tax issue - neither the tax base nor corporation tax rates. British chancellors (both Labour and Conservative) have repeatedly stuck to the line that taxation is a matter of national sovereignty and that further EU-wide rules on corporation tax are unwelcome. Yet as as the Amazon case shows, sticking to a resolutely national position on taxation becomes less and less tenable in a globalised market where electronic as well as physical goods are increasingly traded across borders. 

Perhaps if you are George Osborne and you believe in a destructive race-to-the-bottom on tax rates all of this might be desirable, but it is high time that Labour revisited this issue in opposition. The only alternative to tax competition is tax harmonisation. An EU-wide agreement on the definition of an e-book for VAT purposes, and a commitment to a common consolidated corporate tax base are the very least Ed Balls should be demanding.

An Amazon employee walks the corridors of their warehouse. Credit: Getty

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The age of China's female self-made billionaires – and why it could soon be over

Rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common.

Elizabeth Holmes, 33, was the darling of Silicon Valley, and the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. Then, after a series of lawsuits, the value of her healthcare firm plummeted.

Holmes might have abdicated the billionaire crown, but another tech queen was ready to take it. Only this time, the self-made female billionaire was not a blonde American, but Zhou Qunfei, a 47-year-old from China. She dropped out of high school and began working at a watch lens factory as a teenager. In 1993, when she was in her early twenties, she founded her own company. Her big break came ten years later, when Motorola asked her to develop a glass screen for smartphones. She said yes.

Zhou is in fact more typical of the SMFB set than Holmes. Of those listed by Forbes, 37.5 per cent come from China, compared to 30 per cent from the United States. Add in the five SMFB from Hong Kong, and the Middle Kingdom dominates the list. Nipping at Zhou’s heels for top spot are Chan Laiwa, a property developer who also curates a museum, and Wa Yajun, also a property developer. Alibaba founder Jack Ma declared his “secret sauce” was hiring as many women as possible.

So should the advice to young feminists be “Go East, young woman”? Not quite, according to the academic Séagh Kehoe, who runs the Twitter account Women in China and whose research areas include gender and identity in the country.

“I haven’t seen any of these self-made female billionaires talking about feminism,” says Kehoe. Instead, a popular narrative in China is “the idea of pulling yourself up by your boot straps”. So far as female entrepreneurs embrace feminism, it’s of the corporate variety – Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has been translated into Mandarin.

In fact, Kehoe believes the rise of the self-made woman is down to three historic factors – the legacy of Maoist equality, and both the disruption and the opportunity associated with the post-Mao economic reforms.

Mao brought in the 1950 Marriage Law, a radical break with China’s patriarchal traditions, which banned marriage without a woman’s consent, and gave women the right to divorce for the first time.

In Communist China, women were also encouraged to work. “That is something that was actively promoted - that women should be an important part of the labour force,” says Kehoe. “At the same time, they also had the burden of cooking and cleaning. They had to shoulder this double burden.”

After Mao’s death, his successor Deng Xiaoping began dismantling the communist economy in favour of a more market-based system. This included reducing the number of workers at state-owned enterprises. “A lot of women lost their jobs,” says Kehoe. “They were often the first to be laid off.”

For some women – such as the SMFBs – this was counterbalanced by the huge opportunities the new, liberal economy presented. “All this came together to be a driving force for women to be independent,” Kehoe says.

The one child policy, although deeply troubling to feminists in terms of the power it dictates over women’s bodies, not to mention the tendency for mothers to abort female foetuses, may have also played a role. “There is an argument out there that, for all of the harm the one child policy has done, for daughters who were the only child in the family, resources were pushed towards that child,” says Kehoe. “That could be why female entrepreneurs in China have been successful.”

Indeed, for all the dominance of the Chinese SMFBs, it could be short-lived. Mao-era equality is already under threat. Women’s political participation peaked in the 1970s, and today’s leaders are preoccupied with the looming fact of an aging population.

“There has been quite a lot of pushback towards women returning to the home,” says Kehoe. Chinese state media increasingly stresses the role of “good mothers” and social stability. The one child policy has been replaced by a two child policy, but without a comparable strengthening of maternity workplace rights.

Meanwhile, as inequality widens, and a new set of economic elites entrench their positions, rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common. So could the Chinese SMFBs be a unique phenomenon, a generation that rode the crest of a single wave?

“Maybe,” says Kehoe. “The 1980s was the time for self-made billionaires. The odds aren’t so good now.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.