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European Commission

Algirdas Šemeta

Commissioner responsible for Taxation and Customs Union, Audit and Anti-fraud



Dublin, 11 January 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Magnitude of the crisis and responses

The crisis that we are going through is the biggest economic crisis since 1929.

The European Union has reacted to this crisis by promoting fiscal discipline in Member States through the creation of the European Semester.

We also worked on the stability of financial markets by creating financial backstops, proposing a supervisory role for the European Central bank and launching the European Stability Mechanism.

In addition, and as a necessary companion to fiscal discipline, we put forward the EU 2020 Strategy and the Growth Compact to promote growth and jobs.

We now have the governance tools and rules to ensure that the EU as a whole can forge ahead on the path to recovery and growth.

Nonetheless, the outlook for this year is still weak and

2013 will continue to be challenging. We must sustain our commitment to recovery, deploy all necessary instruments and pull tighter together as a Union to emerge strong from this crisis.

Where does tax policy stand in this context?)

In this context, we must look at how tax policy can contribute to the consolidation and smart growth agenda of the EU.

In the Single Market, we should strive towards world class tax systems, which would put the EU at a decisive competitive advantage in the global economic arena.

We must create a tax environment which allows businesses to expand and create jobs, and attracts foreign investors.

We must cut compliance costs and red tape, so that businesses can invest what they save in bureaucracy in research, innovation and training.

We must also create a fair tax environment. One where it pays to work and where labour and capital, across all the sectors of the economy, would contribute a fair share to financing our European social and economic model.

So, how to progress on this road towards making the Single Market the best place in the world to do business? I believe that the answer is twofold:

  1. First, we need to push, through the European Semester process, for appropriate tax reforms in Member States.

  2. Second, Member States should speed up the adoption of the initiatives proposed by the Commission to strengthen the Single Market, which should become a reality also from the tax perspective.

Using the European Semester to improve the quality of tax systems in the Member States

An assessment of last year's exercise

Let me start with a few words on our experience so far with taxation in the European Semester.

Over the last few months, there has been a general trend observed in the Member States towards fundamental tax reforms.

However, there is still scope to shift the overall tax burden towards tax bases that are less detrimental to growth and job creation.

Such a shift requires a package approach which ensures equitable redistribution and is adapted to the circumstances of the individual Member State.

This is why the Commission recommends that:

  1. First, the tax burden on labour should be substantially reduced in countries where it is comparatively high and hampers job creation. To ensure that reforms are revenue neutral, taxes such as consumption tax, recurrent property tax and environmental taxes should be favoured.

  2. Second, revenue should preferably be raised y by broadening tax bases rather than by increasing tax rates or creating new taxes;

  3. Third, tax compliance should be improved by reducing the shadow economy, combatting tax evasion and ensuring greater efficiency in the tax administration.

  4. Finally, the corporate tax bias towards debt-financing should be reduced and tax schemes which increase the debt bias of households should be reviewed to avoid financial risks.

Looking at the national tax reforms proposed so far, it is fair to say that, in general, Member states are following the recommendations made by the Commission.

In this context, I am aware that Ireland continues to make good progress, having met all the quarterly fiscal targets so far under the economic convergence programme.

I also note that most of the tax related elements of the budget presented by the Irish Government last December are well in line with what the Commission recommends for quality tax reforms, which is a good sign for the future.

But let me stress that, whether in Ireland or anywhere else in the EU, success relies on tax reforms which take into account two essential elements: competitiveness and fairness.

A more ambitious trend towards tax shifts and equity

For competitiveness, we know that job creation is fundamental. Therefore, the shift to more growth-friendly taxes is particularly important at a time where we need to use every possible measure to boost employment.

Our analysis of Member States' tax reforms shows that more can be done to shift taxes away from labour towards consumption, environment or property taxation.

It is also time to put the emphasis on fairness.

The public acceptability of tax reforms depends greatly on how fair they are perceived to be. I will speak in a minute about what we are doing at EU level to this end.

But at national level, more efforts to address fraud and evasion will certainly contribute to fairer burden sharing for honest taxpayers.

The current pressure on public finances could also be turned into an opportunity for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the public administrations. In these difficult times, we need to get value-for-money, less expensive and more resilient administration.

A lot is to be done at national level and taxation reforms should benefit more from the e-government programmes in Member States.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you know, in the European Union, the main responsibility for tax reforms lies with the Member States. As long as they comply with EU law, they retain their full sovereignty to adapt their tax systems and tax rates to their national preferences and objectives. However, with our extremely interconnected economies, working in isolation doesn't pay off.

I truly believe that there is immense added-value to tax coordination at EU level.

This can support national reforms and complement the actions of each country by, for example, tackling cross border bottlenecks and simplifying the tax environment for businesses.

Offering new opportunities for growth in the Single Market

This leads me to the second point I would like to raise today. For our common recovery, we must create a more business-friendly environment.

One in which companies can expand beyond their national markets and are not hindered by a patchwork of divergent national approaches to taxation.

(Fragmentation of the Single Market and competitiveness of the EU)

Improving the business tax environment is a central issue for competitiveness of the EU: Investors need stability, legal certainty, less administrative burden and less compliance costs. That is why I proposed a Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base.

Its purpose is to offer cross-border businesses cheaper and easier access to the Single Market, not to introduce any tax rate harmonisation.

I also proposed a review of the directive on taxation of energy products. It would introduce a formula putting all fuels on an equal footing taxing them on the basis of their energy content and CO2 emissions.

This should avoid double taxation for businesses subject to the Emission's Trading System and encourage the development of the green economy.

My contacts with the business community also confirm that one key element for a business-friendly environment is to cut red tape, decrease compliance costs and improve business cash flow.

We have taken all this into account in the VAT reform which I presented at the end of last year. Certain important measures have already been delivered. On 1 January, new EU invoicing rules came into force, which will make a big difference to the lives of business – both large and small.

They establish equal treatment between paper and electronic invoices, facilitating the uptake of e-invoicing. And they enable all Member States to authorise cash accounting for micro-businesses, which will make a huge difference to many SMEs in terms of cash-flow.

In other words, we are making sure that VAT rules do not leave the smallest businesses out of pocket, or struggling to make ends meet. The Commission will continue on this route this year, by presenting a proposal for standardising the VAT return.

Ensure fair taxation

Fairness is also an issue which we fully take into consideration in our initiatives at EU level. Our European social model is about combining economic dynamism with social fairness. And taxation plays a part in this model.

The essence of fairness lies in Member States being able to collect the taxes that are due, and all taxpayers paying their legitimate share.

I have briefly mentioned that Member States need to increase their efforts to tackle fraud and evasion at home. Likewise, more European coordination could substantially improve our fight against this problem.

Tax evasion and avoidance deprive Member States of up to €1 trillion every year.

This not only means the loss of much needed revenue, it also undermines fairness. Those who do pay their taxes must pay more, to compensate for the evaders. And competition between tax compliant businesses and their non-compliant counterparts becomes distorted.

With this in mind, in December, the Commission adopted an action plan to fight against tax fraud and tax evasion, along with recommendations to Member States for action. Allow me to briefly mention some of the actions which need quick progress:

  1. First, Savings taxation: Member States must urgently agree on the reinforced Directive and mandate the Commission to review the related Agreement with Switzerland and other non EU European Countries;

  2. Second, tax havens: Member States should implement a common definition of tax havens and black-list uncooperative jurisdictions;

  3. Third, aggressive tax planning. Loopholes and mismatches in the Single Market should not lead to situations of “de facto” non-taxation. Member States should apply common measures to block opportunities for aggressive tax planners. They should reinforce their Double Tax Conventions and adopt a uniform General Anti-Abuse Rule, which would allow them to tax on the basis of real economic substance, and ignore artificial tax arrangements.

I can't finish on this topic without mentioning a fundamentally fair tax which the Commission proposed last year and which currently is the source of much attention: the Financial Transaction tax.

We all know that Member States and the EU intervened massively to rescue the financial sector.

Meanwhile, this same sector carries a disproportionately lower tax burden than other sectors in our society.

The FTT will redress the balance, and ensure that the financial sector makes a fair contribution to public finances.

In addition to this, it will deliver significant new revenues that could be channelled into growth-promoting measures, for the benefit of all.

Agreement on the FTT has not been possible at 27. However, last year, the Commission received requests from 11 Member States to move ahead with a common FTT, under what we call the enhanced cooperation procedure.

Although Ireland is not one of these 11 Member States signed up to move ahead with the FTT, I am confident that it will facilitate progress during its Presidency. The European Council and our citizens have high expectations for quick results.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Taxation has a major role to play in ensuring smart consolidation and sustainable growth in the EU.

Our goal must be to make the Single Market the best place in the world to do business; to become a benchmark for competitive and efficient tax systems.

The European Union is currently designing the deepening of the Euro and the forging a genuine Economic and Monetary Union.

Taxation cannot be avoided in this debate. The day of isolated tax policy is over.

Coming closer together as a Union on tax matters reinforces every Member States' capacity to offer a sound and competitive business environment.

It helps our businesses, and attracts investment. And it strengthens our common position when addressing international challenges and spreading the principle of fair taxation abroad.

I therefore strongly believe that for taxation, as for other policy areas, the answer to our current challenges lies in more Europe, not less. And I am confident that the Irish presidency will push this agenda forward.

Thank you for your attention.

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