Ireland this week finally accepted the offer of an EU bail-out to halt a contagion spreading across the Euro-zone like wild-fire. Spain and Portugal are also vulnerable to a knock on the door from the man at the IMF and all the stops are being pulled to prevent them going the same way as Ireland and Greece. But the crisis does not begin and end with the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain). The banking crisis threatens to engulf the entire Eurozone to the point where it could wipe out the ten year old currency.
This is a crisis that is too good to waste. For Europhiles, the bail-outs present a unique opportunity for an unprecedented fiscal convergence and closer co-ordination of tax rates between Member States – the holy grail of the more ardent euro-federalists.
EU Commission officials joined the IMF and the European Central Bank in a fact-finding trip to Ireland this week to work out just how much Ireland needs to borrow to bail out its banks and perhaps even service the public debt which severe austerity measures have failed to correct. The final figure could be around €90bn.
The Irish Government is expected to announce further austerity measures of around €15bn next week and a 2011 austerity budget will be put to the Dail on 7th December. However, the cuts will not be enough to restore confidence. Germany is putting pressure on the Irish to raise its corporation tax, which at 12.5% is much lower than many other EU economies.
For Ireland it is too heavy a price to pay for a bail-out that they have only accepted with great reluctance.
Elmar Brok, a senior CDU Member of the European Parliament told a party congress in Karlsruhe; "Ireland has two options to consolidate its budget – cut expenses even further or increase taxes like the corporate tax rate,"
This is not the helpful budgetary advice it seems. Mr Brok’s concern is not really about how best the Irish Government can raise its income. He, like his political colleagues in Berlin, have long been concerned about the effect that the low rates of corporation tax in Ireland has had on the German economy. Germany has seen companies re-locate to Ireland thanks to highly competitive tax rates.
It is not just Germany that has seen an opportunity to attack Ireland’s corporation tax – but the UK too.
Britain is poised to help in the bail-outs – either bilaterally, or as part of a European mechanism. British banks reportedly have around $150 billion of exposure to Irish debt.
But the UK too has been a victim of the low rates of Irish corporation tax – and would welcome an increase being part of a European bail-out deal.
For its part, Ireland says the corporation tax rate is non-negotiable; not least because it offers the country its best chance to grow its way out of the crisis. The Irish European Minister Dick Roche bluntly told reporters that "it (corporation tax rates) is certainly not up for negotiation.”
This is hyperbole. It is, of course, up for negotiation. The austerity measures have stalled growth in the economy and the Irish need to look at where they can increase tax receipts. Moreover, the EU member states that have lost out to the advantage that Ireland had in attracting corporations to its shores, will insist on it.
Tax competition has been a sacred cow for EU member states. As member states have increasingly harmonised standards to ensure a level playing field in the single market, tax was the only area left where they could really compete with each-other. Outside of Value Added Tax, where minimum levels and exemptions are agreed at EU level, the European Union has very limited competences for tax policy.
This could all change. Although it may seem far-fetched to assume that the financial crisis could lead to a common corporation tax – particularly since it would require unanimity among all Member States, the terms of debate have changed since the bank bail outs. Low corporation taxes are increasingly seen as an unfair advantage -when each Member State’s economy is so intrinsically linked with each-other and fiscal transfers across the Eurozone are seen as a natural response to asymmetric shocks to the Euro. So rather than more protectionism and the disintegration of the Euro, could the banking bail-outs, in fact result in an EU tax policy that sets common rates for all business operating in the single market?