BERLIN — Perhaps as revealing as the “Paradise Papers” leak itself — which exposed how politicians and celebrities are investing offshore to avoid paying taxes — are the reactions to it. The condemnations trickling in since Sunday have been fairly mild, suggesting that the latest offshore tax avoidance revelations might not change much on a broader scale.
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas distinguished himself with one of the boldest responses, demanding on Monday that tax avoidance loopholes within the European Union be closed. But he was far from the norm. For instance, while British Prime Minister Theresa May said she supported “greater transparency,” she did not encourage an inquiry into the allegations or any major changes to existing laws.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that her ruler, Queen Elizabeth II herself, and one of her party’s biggest donors appear in the documents, too.
Reactions were even more muted in countries such as Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands, which have become known for using taxation loopholes to attract corporations and the world’s richest — practices that cost their neighbors billions of dollars in revenue every year.
A recent dataset by Berkeley University economics researcher Gabriel Zucman, Thomas Tørsløv and Ludvig Wier visualizes how vast the differences between tax loophole losers and winners are within the European Union and on a global scale. Germany, the country that was particularly vocal about the latest revelations, loses about a third of its total corporate tax income because of tax avoidance and other loopholes, compared to about 20 percent in Britain and 16.6 percent in the United States.
Havens where corporations or individuals can avoid higher tax rates without necessarily violating laws are not only prevalent in the Caribbean, but can also be found in the English Channel on the island of Jersey and a bit farther to the west, in Dublin. The weather may be a bit colder, but they function in the same way as the more exotic tax havens often mentioned and are responsible for about two-thirds of all tax losses in Europe, according to a calculation by Zucman featured in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Tuesday.
Germany and other major losers of tax avoidance have only partially succeeded in pressuring their E.U. neighbors into closing loopholes in recent years, and they are unlikely to make much more progress anytime soon, even despite the most recent revelations.
Last year's “Panama Papers” revelations — published by the same consortium of journalists behind the “Paradise Papers” — similarly exposed companies, top officials, oligarchs and politicians benefiting from tax evasion or avoidance. The leak resulted in resignations, investigations and embarrassment. Yet, it did not lead to the sort of far-reaching legal reforms needed to persuade European tax havens to ban the controversial practices. Such changes to E.U. regulations would have required almost unanimous support.
In Europe, this has created a contradictory situation in which a political union of nations is both home to some of the world’s biggest losers and winners of tax avoidance practices.
The most recent leak shows how widespread the practice of avoiding taxes still is, even among the top politicians and advisers in charge of creating the rules that are supposed to stop tax evasion or avoidance. On Sunday, Süddeutsche Zeitung and other media outlets first reported that the documents referred to Queen Elizabeth II, Trump administration officials, an aide of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a major donor of Britain’s Conservative Party, among others. A day later, the media organizations that examined the leak described similar offshore tax avoidance by large corporations such as Apple and Nike, although those latter allegations may not have come as a major surprise given prior criticism of U.S. companies operating in Europe.
Speaking to the BBC in response to allegations that the queen’s British estate made questionable investments into offshore companies, her chief finance officer, Chris Adcock, defended the decisions, saying: “The duchy has only invested in highly regarded private equity funds following a strong recommendation from our investment consultants.”
The response suggests that, uproar aside, offshore tax havens are still very much seen as an acceptable investment by consultants.