More Fallout from Switzerland’s Tax Fight with Brussels

This site has closely followed the European Commission’s attempt to undermine Swiss tax sovereignty - an effort that has implications for the US since high-tax nations like France and Germany could use the same argument (that low taxes somehow are contrary to free trade) against America at the WTO if the anti-Swiss campaign proves successful. Fortunately, that is not likely to happen. The European Commission ultimately has only one weapon, which is the ability to impose protectionist sanctions against Swiss goods and services. But as Euractiv.com notes, there are EU member states that support tax competition and presumably would not approve an effort to punish Switzerland for the supposed sin of good tax law:

The Commission, on 13 February, accused Switzerland of offering unfair company-tax advantages that it says amounts to illegal state aid, in order to lure multinationals away from the EU. …Member states are likely to give strong backing to the Commission, as frustration has grown with the increasing number of multinationals, including General Motors, Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble, deserting their EU headquarters to set up in Switzerland. Tax competition is also a problem within the EU, with countries like Ireland and Luxembourg luring companies away from high-tax France and Germany thanks to their low business tax rates. But, a Commission move to harmonise tax systems across the EU is being fiercely resisted by low-tax member states.

Needless to say, the Swiss-EC fight has nothing to do with trade and everything to do with tax competition. Politicians from high-tax nations despise fiscal rivalry since it forces them to lower tax rates (or at least not to raise rates even further) in an effort to prevent the loss of jobs and capital. Switzerland is a beneficiary of this liberalizing process, both because its overall tax burden is low compared to the rest of Europe, but also because the nation has a genuine federal system, meaning that regional (cantonal) and local governments must compete to offer the most attractive fiscal policies. A recent paper published by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity explains the role of intra-national tax competition, and a report from Euro2day.gr shows that Swiss leaders understand the valuable role of their federal structure:

Zug has been particularly exposed. “We don’t understand why the Commission has made these accusations now,” says Peter Hegglin, the cantonal finance minister. …Like most Swiss, Mr Hegglin emphasises the role of tax competition as a cornerstone of Switzerland’s extreme form of devolution, where individual cantons and communities set their own levies, and as an instrument to ensure lean, efficient government. “Tax competition is something that is so deeply ingrained in Switzerland internally that the government has little leeway to negotiate anything,” says Walter Kielholz, chairman of Credit Suisse. …Zug is now the hub for companies from global commodities traders, such as Glencore, to the regional headquarters of leading pharmaceuticals groups. Nord Stream, the Russian dominated consortium planning a new gas pipeline under the Baltic, is the latest of many arrivals. Zug’s appeal lies in its proximity to Zurich, its lawyers, accountants and consultants – and its modest taxes. All companies must pay Switzerland’s nationwide 8.5 per cent federal profits tax. Some others also face cantonal and municipal levies, taking the total to 16-16.5 per cent.

Last but not least, a letter-to-the-editor of the Financial Times mockingly asks whether the bureaucrats in Brussels will extend their complaint about Switzerland’s tax laws to other policies:

The Swiss know many more ways of unfair competition to lure successful businesses to settle there. Take my own typical recent travel experience: Queueing for check-in and security control at Kastrup airport, Copenhagen: 2hr 15min. Queueing at Birmingham international airport: 1hr 45min. I always avoid using Heathrow and BA because it is even worse. No queueing at Geneva airport, check-in and security control completed in less than 20 minutes. …In the UK or Sweden the whole rail system breaks down if 5cm of snow falls. The Swiss trains run 90 per cent on time, even if it is snowing! Another example of unfair efficiency. The political system with its direct democracy is less corrupt in Switzerland than in the UK, Germany and Sweden. Is this not an outrageous example of unfair competition? Because of low taxes the Swiss public services must be well organised and more efficient than in Scandinavia and the UK. The efficiency of public services together with reasonable taxes is Switzerland’s most important advantage.