Technical politics, sovereignty and the prospects of tax multilateralism

International tax cooperation is hard. Especially when it challenges national sovereignty. Sovereignty is close to heart for politicians. Taxation remains a cornerstone of the nation-state and of the social contract. Governments are not liable to relinquish absolute authority on tax matters.

So, at least, the story goes. Indeed, the reality – and the associated perception – of taxation as the ultimate prerogative of sovereigns (alongside the use of force) has fundamentally shaped all kinds of analysis of international tax matters. In political science, for instance, the predominant approach to international taxation relies on realist models of inter-state power battles. When tax is the point of discussion, states are the relevant players and power is the game, with sovereignty at the core of the underlying dynamics.

That’s why, it is said, for instance, that the European Union has never been able to take control over direct tax regulation, although its powers span an otherwise extensive array of national legislative agendas.

Sovereignty is also cited as a key criticism of the European Commission’s recently re-launched proposal for a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base (CCCTB). The CCCTB, of course, is the Commission’s flagship initiative to harmonise calculation of companies’ taxable profits, ridding the private sector of having to deal with 28 (soon to be 27) different such rulebooks. The CCCTB would revolutionise the corporate income tax system in the EU, moving from one of tax base allocation based on the arm’s length and separate entity principles, towards one based on unitary taxation, with tax base allocation through formulary apportionment, i.e. divided between Member States according to local sales, labour costs and assets.

More importantly, the CCCTB would mean EU Member States surrendering national sovereignty on tax matters. Effectively, rules for deductions, incentives and so forth would come under the control of the EU system, with individual countries having to obey rules agreed at the supranational level, and going the multilateral EU route to any substantial changes.

Whereas the CCCTB has been lamented as largely ‘doomed’ because of the EU’s sovereignty-challenging, hard law, bargaining-based policy process, another major multilateral tax initiative, the OECD-led, voluntary, soft law, consensus-based Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, has been praised for its speedy and effective solution-building.

However, both projects are indicative of increasing international tax cooperation. They have much more in common than usually discussed, and that tells us something about the general prospects for tax multilateralism. While national sovereignty and power politics are important barriers to tax cooperation, they have been overemphasised at the expense of alternative understandings of the lack of traction for the CCCTB and similar initiatives.

Here, I want to expand on this argument, drawing two key distinctions, namely between political and technical policy arenas, and between legal and effective sovereignty, in understanding the outlook for international tax cooperation.

Technical vs. political levels

Every policy decision, every policy process, develops at the intersection of two key policy arenas: the political arena and the technical arena.

At the political level, we see most clearly the distinctions described above. Hard law vs. soft law; sovereignty vs. cooperation; my country interests vs. your country interests; etc. The primary actors are states, embedded in distributional conflict.

The technical level, however, is different. I have written elsewhere on the topic so I shall keep it short. Suffice to note that the protagonists here are primarily experts and professionals, bureaucrats and advisers, working to build credible technical solutions, with country interests and high politics in the background.

Each level is important in a policy process, although one may weigh more heavily at certain points and in certain settings. But the relation is key. The technical level shapes the political level, and vice versa. Experts influence what can and cannot be proposed and discussed and accepted as policy issues and solutions; politicians influence the framework in and speed of which certain policy topics are taken up, and so forth.

At the same time, the ‘technical’/’political’ distinction should not be overemphasised. What is technical is political: a minor, seemingly technical addition to a policy recommendation may have enormous distributional consequences. And what is political is technical: politicians’ ability to promote technically authoritative arguments in proposing issue solutions is central to policy success.

While popular explanations typically highlight dynamics at the political level – country interests, national sovereignty and distributional politics – as the preeminent cause of policy success or failure, the technical level remains underappreciated.

The success of the BEPS project, for instance, has not merely been down to goodwill from the G20 and OECD nations, but, to a great extent, it is a consequence of dynamics at the technical level, as I have written elsewhere. Consensus around key technical BEPS provisions throughout a significant international community of professionals has played a central role in effective policy uptake. The delivery of technically strong, agreeable solutions from the technical level to the political level, while still needing to be ratified, was essential in inclining political decisions and a major contributor to widespread implementation.

Similarly, while the CCCTB’s difficulty is usually ascribed to power politics, I would argue that it may have as much to do with technical opposition. The Commission’s proposal faces a number of key technical-level barriers. Several specific provisions have received negative scrutiny, in particular the R&D superdeduction. More generally, the CCCTB is an attempt at wholesale replacement of 28 distinct corporate tax systems, each with vested technical stakeholders, along with the complete overhaul of the international tax system and demolition of entrenched, well-established and well-supported legal and economic principles. It is safe to say there is extensive technical-level resistance to the proposal.

Thus, technical-level entrenchment may provide a barrier just as significant as power politics to the CCCTB and EU tax multilateralism in general – even if the interplay of high politics and technocracy is decisively different in OECD and EU. Power politics may play a more significant role during policy formulation and decision-making in the EU compared to the OECD. But there are also important overlaps. For instance, there is significant similarities in the nature and make-up of the community of professionals involved in the technical levels in the EU and the OECD. Differences are, in my view, not so substantial that they undermine the importance of the technical arena in the EU.

Legal vs. effective sovereignty

Another underappreciated distinction in analyses of tax multilateralism is that between effective and legal sovereignty. Many analyses of international tax cooperation have highlighted governments’ aversion to surrendering (legal) sovereignty on tax, their desire to retain the full right to design policy, in explaining lack of traction for tax multilateralism. However, this argument unduly evades the fact that tax multilateralism may, and indeed does, effectively challenge national sovereignty even if it does not do so strictly as a matter of law.

Going back to the BEPS and CCCTB, from a sovereignty perspective, these projects again seem entirely different on the surface. CCCTB is hard law, requires formal pooling of sovereignty, is embedded in the complexities and frictions of the EU system, and has immediate and highly visible inter-nation distributional consequences. BEPS is soft law, based on consensus cooperation, born out of a flexible, technicised OECD process, and has fewer obvious ‘cui bono’ implications.

But although BEPS is seemingly of a softer nature, indications are that it actually behaves similarly to legally binding projects. Countries around the world are implementing key BEPS provisions in a way remarkably close to recommendations. As a matter of law, there was no imperative to do so, but as a matter of practice, there is. The technical-level consensus and dissemination of policy discourse plays a central role here, alongside national political commitments to the OECD and its tax policy processes. Indeed, OECD tax outputs have been known to take on legal ‘hardness’ (cf. 1, 2, 3). Formally, the BEPS recommendations retain ‘soft’ qualities – they can be unilaterally changed at political will – but in practice, there is a strong normative allegiance. As a matter of law, it is non-binding, but effectively… well, if not outright ‘binding’, then certainly something closer to binding than non-binding.

In the same way that international tax competition de facto undermines national sovereignty (effectively constraining national policy choices), while de jure leaving it untouched (nations formally retain the right to design policy), we might say that BEPS de facto is a pooling of sovereignty, although de jure it is not. National sovereignty has effectively been pooled or surrendered as a result of the BEPS process.

Of course, policy-makers may not perceive it as so. They may never articulate it. And they may rightfully hold that the distinction remains crucial. But the increasing trend towards tax multilateralism – indicated by both BEPS, CCCTB and a host of other international initiatives – may well be a result of increasing recognition that pooling of sovereignty is essential in order to improve the international tax system, whether that is effective or legal sovereignty-pooling. As German political scientists Thomas Rixen and Philipp Genschel have argued, countries can only curb tax competition by relaxing sovereignty or unilaterally engaging in double taxation:

Udklip

Thus, the emphasis on governments clutching to legal national sovereignty is perhaps somewhat overemphasised in accounts of tax multilateralism.

The Prospects of Tax Multilateralism

So what does this mean for the prospects of tax multilateralism more broadly?

In my view, the lack of traction for the CCCTB, due to continued challenges at the political and technical levels, should not be seen to crumble the overall prospects of tax multilateralism in the EU or beyond.

On the contrary, it seems to me that the underlying dynamic of political-technical interplay in international tax provides fertile ground for tax multilateralism, as both BEPS and the attempt at CCCTB testifies to. The lesson, rather, is that tax multilateralism has to happen under the right circumstances.

The CCCTB may be a dead fish, but this may be less about absolute adversity towards pooling/surrendering tax sovereignty than it is about adversity towards the particular modality and scope of pooling/surrendering tax sovereignty in the CCCTB case. It is the specific characteristics of the CCCTB – the extensive scope of the overhaul, the distributional implications, etc. – that explains its inability to get off the ground, while BEPS has shot out of a cannon. The long list of technical issues associated with the CCCTB regime, alongside the political squabbles, is not a recipe for success. In that sense, the CCCTB may be more fraught than BEPS ever was, asking for a more expansive and apparently unappealing pooling of sovereignty, underpinned by slow and friction-filled decision-making processes, compared to the perceived speediness and efficiency and technical OECD discussions.

Thus, while existing initiatives international tax cooperation may fall flat, we should not take that as evidence that tax multilateralism is failing. We should take it as evidence that we have yet to hit the right approach in the interplay of technical politics and political politics.

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