By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A group of European Union countries is calling for the bloc to cast a wider net when listing tax havens and to consider imposing stricter sanctions for countries facilitating tax avoidance, according to an EU document and an EU official.
The document, prepared by the Danish government and seen by Reuters, urges a discussion on whether “current criteria provide sufficient protection against tax avoidance and evasion” and pushes for “strengthened” standards and sanctions. Germany and France were among its backers.
It also calls for a discussion on how member states deal with the issue, asking “Do we internally have sufficient safeguards against tax avoidance and evasion?”
This potentially sets up a dispute with EU members Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Ireland, which widely use low tax and other sweeteners to host EU headquarters of foreign firms, depriving other EU governments of tax revenues from profits that corporations make on their territory.
At a meeting of EU finance ministers on Thursday, several EU states backed the Danish proposal, one EU official said, naming Germany, France, Spain and Austria among the explicit supporters.
Croatia, which holds the EU chair from January, said the review of the current criteria would be discussed during its six-month presidency, the official said. The review was likely to take place in February or March, the official added.
After revelations of widespread tax avoidance schemes used by corporations and wealthy individuals to lower their tax bills, the EU set up a blacklist in 2017, but its definition of tax havens was narrow. For example a 0% corporate tax rate is not a sufficient condition for being listed.
It also screens only non-EU countries, saying its 28 states were already applying high standards against tax avoidance.
Foreign jurisdictions are blacklisted if they do not meet EU standards on tax transparency and regulation. Countries that commit to changes are included in a so-called grey list until they deliver, and if they miss deadlines, they end up on the blacklist.
The listing has pushed more than 60 countries to pledge changes, but only eight jurisdictions are currently blacklisted. They are mostly Pacific and Caribbean islands with little financial relation with the EU.
Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Ireland were listed in a report by International Monetary Fund researchers in September as world-leading tax havens, together with Hong Kong, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, Switzerland and Mauritius. None of them are on the EU list.
The EU Commission supported the Danish initiative, the EU official said. Tax commissioner Paolo Gentiloni has publicly pledged to work for sanctions against blacklisted jurisdictions, which now face only reputational damage and curbs on small EU funding, but no heavier penalties by member states.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Frances Kerry)