Italy goes it alone on Digital Services Tax; US doesn't find it bellisimo

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan October 18, 2019
Summary:
Italy is the latest nation to take Digital Services Tax measures into its own hands.

trump

Italy has become the latest country to put in place plans to impose a unilateral Digital Services Tax, with the announcement coinciding with President Trump hosting his Italian counterpart in Washington. 

Italy plans to slap a 3% of revenues tax on companies with sales of over €750 million, when at least €5.5 million come from services provided in Italy. According to budget plans submitted to the European Commission, the Italian government reckons that the new tax will pull in €600 million per annum when it’s introduced next year.

The move follows France’s decision to go it alone with its own version of a local tax, an action which enraged the Trump administration and led to Twitter threats of a tariff war on wine and cheese.

The problem is that such taxation is seen in Washington as being primarily aimed at US tech giants, such as Amazon and Google, who are currently able allocate EU tax obligations to favorable local regimes.

According to comments by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin earlier this week, there is progress being made towards a rapprochement between France and the US:

We don't yet have an agreement, but we are getting closer in that direction.

But as President Trump met with his Italian counterpart yesterday, White House officials were warning that Italy’s tax plans would meet with the same hostility as France’s had done:

[He] believes this is an unfair discrimination on US companies since they are the primary companies that would be affected by such a tax. If such targeting of US companies is done, he would have no choice but to retaliate to protect US businesses.

Proposal 

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been working on an international plan to tackle the problem of multi-national companies not paying tax based on local sales around the globe. For example, it’s recently been announced that Facebook earned £1.6 billion in revenue in the UK, but paid only £28 million of tax to the UK Treasury.

It has now published a first proposal - Secretariat Proposal for a “Unified Approach” under Pillar One - which seeks to ensure that multi-nationals conducting significant business in places where they do not have an actual physical presence become liable for tax, with new rules stating where tax should be paid and on what portion of profits they should be taxed.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría has emphasised the urgency of coming to a consensus internationally if the global digital economy is not to become bogged down by a Balkanised tax regime:

We’re making real progress to address the tax challenges arising from digitalisation of the economy, and to continue advancing toward a consensus-based solution to overhaul the rules-based international tax system by 2020.

This plan brings together common elements of existing competing proposals, involving over 130 countries, with input from governments, business, civil society, academia and the general public. It brings us closer to our ultimate goal: ensuring all MNEs (Multi-National Enterprises) pay their fair share.

He adds:

Failure to reach agreement by 2020 would greatly increase the risk that countries will act unilaterally, with negative consequences on an already fragile global economy; we must not allow that to happen.

Finance ministers from G20 countries are meeting today in Washington and the OECD proposal will be on the agenda. This is an opportunity that needs to be seized according to UK tech trade association techUK, whose Associate Director of Policy Vinous Ali says:

Concerns about the taxation of multinationals can only be resolved through international action.The OECD proposals have the benefit of looking across the whole economy to build durable and predictable tax principles that do not single out one sector. This is vital if we are to ensure a level playing field that allows our sector to continue to flourish – creating jobs and opportunities as it does.

This is the benefit of a multi-lateral agreement through the OECD which would help create a solution for the long term and negate the need for national or regional solutions that would complicate rather than simplify global tax compliance by multinational companies.

techUK has long called on governments around the world to work together through the OECD to support changes to global tax rules. The fair taxation of multilateral is one of the great challenges of the modern economy, the proposals put forward by the OECD have the potential to update global tax rules to fit the realities of the 21st Century.

The UK has also announced its intention to impose a unilateral Digital Services Tax, but techUK has called on Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid to move away from this plan, which was driven by his predecessor in the role:

We urge the Chancellor to seek to build support for the OECD process at the G20 and position the UK as a leader in global tax reform, rather than be distracted by a UK-only Digital Services Tax that could be dead on arrival if a multi-lateral solution is emerging.

My take

The OECD initial proposal is welcome and worth a read. As ever on this topic, the main stumbling block is going to remain national vested interests, particularly in the US as next year’s election campaigns ramp up. The current Oval Office incumbent’s MAGA rhetoric will be bolstered by a robust defense against the EU and others trying to ‘steal’ tax dollars from US tech champions (even if he’s none too keen on those champions the rest of the time!). The 2020 goal to get a consensus deal done is a worthy ambition, but I’m not about to hold my breath.