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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.