UN votes to take the reins on global tax standards

The United Nations General Assembly’s finance committee voted unanimously Wednesday to start discussions on international taxation standards, effectively challenging a similar long-standing initiative led by advanced economies in the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Wednesday’s resolution calls for “developing an international tax cooperation framework or instrument that is developed and agreed upon through a United Nations intergovernmental process.”

Such a framework has been in development at the OECD for nearly a decade, but has yet to be given a final draft.

At stake in the agreement are new rules about whether multinational corporations should be allowed to store their profits in tax havens overseas and in what jurisdictions corporations can be taxed for the use of their products.

The successful UN resolution was put forward by the 54-member African Group of nations within the UN General Assembly, a bloc with a distinct economic character from the group of developed economies within the OECD and with different ideas on how financial transparency and tax administration should work.

“We note that the OECD has played a role in these areas. It is clear after ten years of attempting to reform international tax rules that there is no substitute for the global, inclusive, transparent forum provided by the United Nations,” the representative of the Nigerian delegation to the UN said during Wednesday’s vote.

“The African Group urges countries to remain committed to the development of inclusive tax instruments at the United Nations and encourage the OECD to play a supporting role in this regard,” the Nigerian representative said.

Countries from the OECD cautioned that it would be unproductive for the UN to double up on the OECD’s work, but stopped short of voting against the resolution.

“We disagree with the notion implied by this resolution that there is not currently a highly inclusive forum working to strengthen international cooperation on tax,” the US representative told the second committee.

The UN resolution “proposes a process that will tear down much of the progress that has been made in international tax cooperation since the 2008-2009 financial crisis and will undermine the inclusive framework at the OECD through which so much progress is being made,” the US delegate added.

Fears that the OECD process had stalled grew over the summer after the nation of Hungary blocked a 15-percent minimum corporate tax from being adopted in the European Union, leading the US to cancel its long-standing bilateral tax treaty with Hungary.

Hungary then sent a delegation to the US to express solidarity with Republicans who also opposed the Biden administration’s efforts towards international corporate tax standards.

“Treasury’s actions suggest an impulsive attempt to pressure a country that has raised legitimate concerns with the agreement to fall in line,” Republican leaders on the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance and Foreign Relations committees wrote in a letter earlier in November.

International tax experts say the timing of Wednesday’s vote has to do with the delay on the OECD provision that stipulates where a corporation can be taxed for the use of its products as well as frustration from lower-income countries about the amount of that tax.

“There’s a document that’s supposed to be coming out in December outlining which unilateral measures will need to be abandoned, including digital services taxes,” Daniel Bunn, president of the Tax Foundation, a Washington think tank, said in an interview. “The goal is to have a multilateral treaty ready for signature in the middle of next year.”

On the amount that corporations can be taxed – which is known as Pillar Two within the agreement – EU finance ministers are set to meet again in December.

“The language of their announcement is that they’re going to be ‘aiming for agreement’ on Pillar Two, but it’s not clear that that’s certain. Hungary has been holding things up,” Bunn added.

Other analysts in Washington say that the interests of developing countries are not given proper consideration in the OECD’s framework, an oversight that could further delay a final deal.

“Although the OECD’s global minimum tax framework got broad international support last year, there have been advocates concerned that any final product would not address the needs of developing countries,” John Buhl, an analyst with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said in a statement to The Hill.

“In the near term, it could also embolden skeptics in Congress and holdouts in the EU who already have concerns about the plan and whether it will ever reach critical mass with enough countries to make adoption worthwhile,” he added.

Tax fairness advocates welcomed Wednesday’s UN resolution, arguing that the OECD had its chance to deliver on a global tax treaty and that the UN is now the better organization to handle the issue.

“The OECD has been unprecedentedly aggressive in its lobbying, but could hardly have failed more completely as the resolution passed by unanimous consensus,” Alex Cobham, head of the European Tax Justice Network, said in a statement. “Some OECD countries spoke in favor of the organization’s role after the resolution’s adoption, but … the OECD’s two-pillar tax proposal is on life support.”

The OECD’s work “has left countries losing $483 billion in tax to tax havens a year; and work which has been widely identified as exclusionary by countries outside the core membership of rich countries. Ultimately, this only confirms the importance of moving tax rulemaking to a globally inclusive and transparent forum at the United Nations,” Cobham added.

The Tax Foundation’s Bunn said that whether negotiations take place at the OECD or the UN, the same sets of issues are bound to arise in the practice of hashing out an agreement.

“What has happened at the OECD, with countries struggling to reach agreement on big picture tax issues – the struggle is going to continue regardless of what the forum is,” he added.

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