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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle