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EUROPEAN UNION

France, Germany, Spain and Italy to sidestep Hungary on global tax plan

Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands said Friday they would implement an international minimum tax on big corporations, sidestepping Hungary's opposition to an EU-wide plan.

French Minister of the Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire (R) and German Finance Minister Christian Lindner
French Minister of the Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire (R) and German Finance Minister Christian Lindner speak with journalists as they arrive for an informal meeting of EU Economy and Financial Affairs Ministers and Central Bank Governors on September 9, 2022 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Michal Cizek / AFP)

The decision by the top European economies effectively ends months of effort to implement the tax jointly across all 27 member states.

The 15-percent minimum tax was one of two pillars of a major international agreement decided at the OECD and signed by more than 130 countries, including Hungary and the United States.

“Should unanimity not be reached in the next weeks, our governments are fully determined to follow through on our commitment,” the countries said in a joint statement.

“We stand ready to implement the global minimum effective taxation in 2023 and by any possible legal means,” the countries added.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who initiated the joint text, said that “tax justice must be a priority for the European Union”.

“We will put in place minimum taxation from 2023, either through the European route or through the national route,” said Le Maire.

Christian Lindner, his German counterpart, said Germany will “if necessary” adopt the tax “independently of an agreement at the European level”.

The EU’s original ambition was that the 27-member bloc would be the first jurisdiction to implement the OECD-brokered agreement. The bloc-wide plan needed the vote of all EU countries in order to pass.

The resistance by Hungary came as the relationship with its EU partners remained fraught, with Budapest along with Warsaw seen as steering away from the bloc’s democratic values.

The Hungarian veto of the minimum tax is seen by many in Brussels as a means of pressure to obtain the release of seven billion euros ($7.3 billion) in grants planned under the European pandemic recovery plan.

Poland’s acceptance of the minimum tax came after Brussels accepted Warsaw’s recovery plan, which should see it receive 36 billion euros in grants and loans over the next several years.

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POLITICS

Germany’s Scholz weathers shocks in turbulent first year

A war in his backyard, galloping economic crisis, and unhappy partners at home and abroad -- German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has weathered unprecedented shocks in his first year, while struggling to make a mark on the global stage.

Germany's Scholz weathers shocks in turbulent first year

The ex-finance minister took office promising continuity with the era of Angela Merkel, who ended her 16 years as chancellor a widely respected figure.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced him to rip up Germany’s post-war axioms and chart out new economic, defence and geopolitical directions for the country that prizes — and is valued for — its stability and predictability.

“We never before had a government faced with such a dramatically worsening situation, when it came to foreign and security policy, but also of course energy policy,” political scientist Ursula Muench told AFP.

Scholz’s coalition of his Social Democrats and partners Greens and liberals FDP had taken office planning ambitious climate policies and budget restraint.

The designated German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (C), co-leader of the Greens and then designated German Minister for Economy and Climate Robert Habeck (L) and the leader of the Free Democratic FDP party and then designated German Finance Minister Christian Lindner (R) pictured in December 2021 in Berlin after leading members of Germany’s social democratic SPD party, the Greens and the FDP sealed their coalition deal to form a new government. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

But as Moscow dwindled its energy supplies in the wake of the war, Germany has had to halt its planned nuclear exit, restart mothballed coal power stations while burning through a budgetary hole in a scrum for oil and gas to replace Russian supplies.

And in a turning point for a country whose role on the world stage was still affected by memories of World War II, Scholz announced a historic shift on defence, vowing to re-arm Germany with a massive boost in military spending.

“Going by the dramatic events this year, he did pretty well,” said Nils Diederich, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

Turning point

But Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at US think tank the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, warned that losing momentum was a danger, even if the initial response was “impressive”.

In this file photo taken on June 16, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz shake hands after a press conference following their meeting in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

“I think not being able to follow through with defence and security commitments is a concern,” she told AFP.

Not only is Germany trying to replenish its own military stocks, it is facing intense pressure from Ukraine to deliver what it has to help in the fightback against Russia.

The defence spending is high at a time when the treasury is also being pressed to help cushion a price shock fuelled by the energy crisis.

Huge investments are also required for the export giant to manage an economic transformation of reliance on cheap Russian energy or Chinese components to a diversified approach.

And governing in a three-way coalition means resolving each challenge inevitably involves squabbles that could unravel the fragile partnership.

Scholz’s government has managed to implement part of its programme, including raising the minimum wage and reforming unemployment benefits.

But with myriad crises not going away, the chancellor’s popularity ratings have suffered.

A survey by the Insa institute published Sunday in tabloid Bild showed 58 percent of Germans are dissatisfied with Scholz — compared with just 22 percent a year ago — and 64 percent are dissatisfied with his government, up from 36 percent.

emmanuel macron and olaf scholz

In this file photo taken on May 9, 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron make their way inside after inspecting an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) 

‘Going it alone’

As well as disagreements at home, there have been tensions with partners abroad.

European Union allies were upset that Scholz announced a massive 200-billion-euro ($207-billion) energy fund without first consulting them, complaining he should have focused on coming up with EU-wide measures.

Tensions have also arisen in the key relationship between Berlin and Paris over issues ranging from the energy fund to German plans for defence procurement.

Unlike Merkel, who, in her time, was widely respected as the voice to reckon with in Europe, Scholz has so far failed to step into the role on the international stage.

Merkel’s departure “has left a void”, said Eric Maurice, from the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation.

Scholz is “struggling to make his mark at the European level… He is still trying to find his bearings, he does not have Merkel’s experience.”

In this file photo taken on November 10, 2021 then outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a press conference to present the annual report of the German Council of Economic Experts (Wirtschaftsweise) in Berlin. (Photo by Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP)

The view Scholz was seeking to “go it alone” was reinforced when he made the first visit to China by a G7 leader since the start of the pandemic in November, accompanied by a delegation of German business leaders.

The chancellor faced accusations he was pursuing the same mercantilist, trade-focused foreign policy of previous German governments, which led to economic ties flourishing with authoritarian Russia, but ultimately left Berlin vulnerable.

As Scholz heads into his second year in the job, many of the open challenges will continue to entangle him.

High energy prices will remain a major problem, particularly for electricity-hungry German manufacturers, said Sudha David-Wilp, Berlin office director of US think tank the German Marshall Fund.

“Ensuring German competitiveness because of the increase in energy costs, particularly for industries like chemicals and steel manufacturing, is the big challenge for Scholz,” she said.

The energy fund “is just a short-term fix. No one knows when energy prices are going to come down to pre-war levels”.

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