By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Officials from the new European Commission will discuss an International Monetary Fund study that lists Luxembourg as a world-leading tax haven just days after the former leader of the Grand Duchy departs the EU executive’s helm.
Vice-President Margrethe Vestager and tax commissioner Paolo Gentiloni will on Monday meet IMF researchers who investigated the impact of tax havens on global tax revenues, according to the commission’s agenda.
Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister from 1995 to 2013, ends his five-year mandate as commission president on Saturday. He is not accused of any wrongdoing.
During his term in Brussels, the EU made some progress in the fight against tax avoidance, but was also criticized by EU lawmakers and activists for having set up a tax haven blacklist that exempted its 28 member states from screening.
Luxembourg, a country of 600,000 people, hosts as much foreign direct investment (FDI) as the United States and much more than China, IMF data shows, estimating FDI in the Grand Duchy is worth $4 trillion, a 10th of the global figure.
“FDI of this size hardly reflects brick-and-mortar investments in the minuscule Luxembourg economy,” the IMF report says, arguing that much of the flow goes to “empty corporate shells” which reduce tax revenues in other countries.
During Juncker’s EU mandate, the commission said Luxembourg had given illegal tax advantages to large corporations, such as tech giant Amazon from 2006 and carmaker Fiat from 2012. But instead of fining Luxembourg, it ordered the recovery of the unpaid taxes.
“A few well-known tax havens host the vast majority of the world’s phantom FDI,” the IMF study said, adding that Luxembourg and the Netherlands, another EU state, absorb nearly half of the $40 trillion FDI, thanks to attractive tax policies and other sweeteners.
Other tax havens listed by the IMF report are Ireland, another EU state, Hong Kong, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, Switzerland and Mauritius.
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 it adopted a very lax definition of tax havens, making a zero corporate tax rate not a sufficient condition for being listed.
No EU country has ever been screened and the current blacklist includes only eight jurisdictions, mostly Pacific and Caribbean islands, but none of the tax havens indicated by the IMF report.
On Thursday EU states also blocked a reform of EU rules that would have forced large firms to reveal how much profit they make in each EU state, which could have led to pressure to rebalance their tax burden. Luxembourg and Ireland opposed the overhaul, while the Netherlands supported it.
Gentiloni has said he wants to step up the EU fight against tax avoidance and has pledged to work for sanctions against blacklisted jurisdictions.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Alison Williams)