|Tove Maria Ryding is a new entry this year|
The European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad) is a network of campaigning organisations working for change in Europe. One of the changes it is pursuing is a transparent multinational tax system, as it sees this as one of the key battlegrounds through which poverty can be alleviated. ITR's Joe Stanley-Smith sits down with Tove Ryding, the organisation's tax justice manager, who has been among the loudest dissenting voices around the BEPS Project.
International Tax Review: Could you talk us through a bit of what you've been doing in 2015?
Tove Maria Ryding: As a European Network, it's our job to keep an eye on the European government. We do that very much with the perspective that we need a transparent tax system where multinationals pay their fair share of tax, but we also have a focus on poverty issues and developing countries.
We need to make sure that we have a tax system that helps to eradicate poverty rather than undermining the fight against it.
We have indeed, in 2015, had an extremely busy year! All through the year, together with partners across Europe, we were monitoring everything that the EU governments were doing. We launched our report at the end of 2015 called '50 Shades of Tax Dodging', which was essentially the result of our monitoring.
Another important thing was keeping an eye on BEPS, and the BEPS negotiating. Generally, I must say it's a bit funny that 2015 is being described as the big year of BEPS. BEPS wasn't a revolution. BEPS wasn't even a reform of the global tax system – to us it seems more of a review of the tax system. I think one of the most stunning parts of BEPS was that the OECD basically decided to maintain very large parts of the broken tax system.
[Patent boxes] are a great example of what's wrong with the global tax system. The fact that BEPS came out with a recipe of how to make patent boxes is a good example of how BEPS is actually explaining how to maintain the current system, instead of explaining how we can fix the problems.
The recipe that the OECD has now presented as the 'real' way to do patent boxes, we foresee as becoming the tax loopholes of the future. So this was a really big concern, and there's a number of other things that BEPS could've changed but didn't. For example, the policy that citizens are not allowed to know what multinational corporations are paying in taxes. This is highly secret – BEPS could've changed this, but didn't. Also the very basic situation where the tax laws for multinational corporations are extremely unclear and complex, so the real tax law actually gets written through secret tax rulings, or 'sweetheart deals'.
This is an extremely opaque and problematic tax system, where you get tax loopholes especially designed by governments for multinational corporations. There's no way we can have a level playing field among companies when this is the case, and there's also no way we can have true transparency of the tax system. These are areas where BEPS could've helped, but instead it launched almost 2,000 pages of new guidelines on tax issues – and on many points, the amount of change contained therein was very limited. To a large extent, BEPS prescribes business-as-usual, in a slightly updated manner.
2015 was also the year that the whistleblowers who gave us the LuxLeaks revelations were charged. Antoine Deltour and also Edouard Perrin, a French journalist, were both charged in Luxembourg and could be risking jail time.
One of the very important things for us was also to make sure that we didn't just sit by and let this happen. So we took to the streets, we campaigned to raise awareness about the injustice of this, and basically made the point that nobody should be going to jail for showing the truth about what multinational corporations are actually paying in taxes. This information shouldn't be secret, and it shouldn't lead to people going to jail.
So I think we've managed to put a lot of focus on the importance of their work. We now have the somewhat tragic circumstances that certain EU Commissioners are thanking them for their work, yet no one is really discussing what we can do to make sure that people that do such important work don't end up being charged.
We will work against this injustice – the trial is only starting in April , and the fact that we managed to mobilise people to take to the streets was very important for us.
When the dust settles on 2015 and the history books get written, I think it will be seen as the year in which developing countries spoke out very strongly and said that they do not accept the dominance of the OECD. The fact is that more than 100 developing countries are excluded from the global decision-making on tax issues. For us, a key achievement of 2015 was that we helped them to bring this issue back into the debate. This issue is not resolved, and this debate will go on.
ITR: What about the state aid challenges we are seeing in Europe?
TMR: The state aid cases are very interesting, but it's a complete mission impossible. If you look at what they're doing, they're taking tax rulings one-by-one – or, in the case of Belgium, taking a small system of tax rulings – and analysing them for years before coming to a conclusion.
Keeping in mind that the Netherlands alone has more than 14,000 tax rulings, many of which the EU is not even allowed to see, it's very clear that this approach of allowing tax rulings to continue, allowing the unclear tax laws to exist, allowing harmful tax practices to exist, and then trying to take the consequences one-by-one and analyse whether it would constitute illegal state aid… no matter how many state aid cases they start, they're never going to get to the point where they can create a watertight system. We need to change the system instead of trying to run out and repair the damage patch-by-patch, company-by-company, tax ruling-by-tax ruling.
It's a brave effort that Commissioner Vestager is putting into it, but it's the wrong tool for the purpose.
ITR: What do you have planned for 2016?
TMR: The first thing for 2016 is that the developing countries are still pushing for a global tax body under the United Nations. We think this is the fair type of democratic institution we should have. This, for us, also means that we will also be in close dialogue with the EU government – in the EU we are supposed to be democratic countries, so how can we support a decision-making body where 100 countries are excluded when we make global tax standards?
That's going to keep us busy!
Another very important issue is also that the European Parliament has put a proposal on the table in the EU, and what it means is that in 2016 we're going to have a very large discussion about whether citizens should be able to see what multinationals are paying in taxes. This debate is coming, and it's going to be very big.