With the British gone, can the EU push on towards tax integration?

What do you mean, you’ve never heard of the common consolidated corporate tax base? It’s all the rage in Brussels, and represents a typical example of how Eurocrats are still increasing centralisation of the EU. Public concern about multinational companies avoiding tax has provided the cover to resurrect a plan for a Europe-wide corporate tax system. It was originally booted into the long grass in 2011, but Eurocrats are a patient lot and have been waiting for an opportunity to bring it back.

At the moment, companies operating in Britain calculate their taxes according to legislation introduced by the British Parliament. Likewise, German companies have to follow the rules from the Bundestag, and Irish companies the laws passed by the Dáil. Under the Eurocrats’ plan, all multinationals operating in the EU will have to calculate their taxable profits according to rules set centrally by the European Commission. The profits would then be divided up between the countries in which the multinational operates and subject to those countries’ corporate tax rates. Corporate groups would also be allowed to set off their losses in one European country against their profits in another country, depriving the country with the profitable business of tax revenues.

EU member states would be allowed to continue setting their own corporate tax rates. But in practice, the ability to do this also requires control over the tax base, which Brussels would determine. In any case, tax rates would be the next item on the agenda for centralisation. As far as Eurocrats are concerned, tax competition between member states is an unacceptable distortion of the single market.

The British Government has consistently stated that it would block the plans and does have a veto over corporate tax measures. However, Brexit has put paid to this obstacle. Eurocrats have also split their proposals into two parts. They will first try to get agreement on an common corporate tax base (CCTB) harmonising the rules under which multinationals operating in the EU have to calculate their taxable profits. Only then, when the same corporate tax rules have been imposed by Brussels on all member states, will the common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB) be launched. This will effectively treat the EU as a single country for company tax purposes.

Eurocrats are hopeful that by dressing the plans up as a way to combat tax avoidance by multinationals, they can exert political pressure on unwilling EU member states to swallow the pill. It is true that the measures would help prevent multinationals from using differences in the tax systems of various countries to reduce their tax bills. However, those differences are the product of decisions by sovereign Parliaments trying to ensure their tax systems are competitive and well-adapted to local circumstances. Even with the British out of the picture, expect strong resistance from smaller countries like Ireland and the Baltic States, which have used tax policy as a central plank of their economic offering to foreign investors.

In the interim, the European Commission is pushing forward with a directive specifically on corporate tax avoidance, which obliges member states to bring in a raft of measures that would previously have been the preserve of national Parliaments. Again, public concern about the activities of multinationals has provided the excuse for this power-grab. In this case, even the UK is on board, in large part because we are introducing most of the rules ourselves in any case.

Under the EU treaties, direct tax has been a matter for national Parliaments. However, if they can achieve unanimity in the Council of Ministers, Eurocrats can still extend their competence into this area. In that case, they don’t need treaty change with the attendant risks of triggering referendums. And once Brussels has the powers it wants, the ratchet has turned and member states can never get them back. The European Court is then be able to further erode national sovereignty through its programme of judicial activism. Already, it has decided old UK rules on taxing dividends and foreign subsidiaries are incompatible with the single market. This has left the British taxpayer with a bill for billions of pounds in compensation payable to the businesses that had suffered the taxes in question. Brexit is unlikely to mean these refunds can be cancelled.

Like many of the machinations in Brussels, the common consolidated corporate tax base is probably too obtuse to be easily understood by European voters. But it shows that the European Commission’s hunger for centralisation is as sharp as ever, especially now that the UK has left the building.

In praise of the Remain campaign: Europhiles should accept they gave it their best shot

Originally published at Brexit Central.

In the aftermath of the referendum, two myths have quickly taken root: that David Cameron made a reckless gamble when he called a vote on the EU and that Britain Stronger in Europe was a disunited rabble that fought a dreadful campaign.

These myths are dangerous because they fuel the calls for a second referendum. Europhiles tell themselves that if the vote was a gamble, another throw of the dice might produce a different result. And they imagine that a more focused and positive campaign for Remain could win the day.

Let me address these two myths in turn.

In his Bloomberg speech of January 2013, Mr Cameron promised a renegotiation with Brussels followed by an In/Out referendum. Commentators rushed to tell us that the speech was a reaction to the rise of UKIP and a way to plaster over the cracks in Tory unity. This confused the symptoms of Euroscepticism with the cause.

UKIP’s success reflected widespread anxiety in the country about the EU, while Conservative divisions had been opened by the refusal of successive British Governments to seek consent for the transfers of sovereignty to the EU by the treaties of Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon. Mr Cameron himself had reneged on his ‘cast iron guarantee’ of a referendum on Lisbon.

It’s also been suggested that he intended to drop the referendum pledge in any coalition negotiations with the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 general election. However, an analysis of Mr Cameron’s statements in the run up to the election shows that this is not true. The referendum was a red line for any coalition agreement. In any case, if he’d tried to ditch it, half the Conservative Party would have spontaneously combusted, including myself.

Far from being a short-term fix for his European troubles, Mr Cameron was thinking strategically. He realised that there had to be a reckoning to settle the question of Britain’s EU membership. And it would be far better for Europhiles if this reckoning took place at a time of his choosing and on his terms. The alternative was a referendum down the line under a Brexiteer Conservative leader using all the advantages of Government to ensure a vote for Leave.

Although the Cameron plan was a sound one for Europhiles, events got in the way. The Prime Minister assumed the EU would need a treaty to solve the Euro-crisis rather than kick the can down the road and condemn tens of millions to unemployment. He hoped Britain’s veto would strengthen his negotiating position. He also underestimated the pig-headedness of his fellow heads of Government in February 2016 when they scuppered his efforts to get a deal he could sell to the British people.

But I would argue that the failure of the renegotiation was a mistake by the EU rather than Mr Cameron, whose only error was to misjudge the EU’s capacity for self-harm.

The second myth concerns the referendum campaign itself. Brussels had dealt Europhiles a very weak hand, but I believe they played it as effectively as they could. For all the criticism of Project Fear, Remain had no choice but to ramp up the scare tactics. Europhiles like former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan might wistfully write that they should have fought a more positive campaign.

But, honestly, what was the optimistic message about the EU supposed to be? Lauding the alleged benefits of immigration was never going to work and Remain knew it was essential to keep the European Commission’s ambitions for more integration under wraps. When the EU took credit for peace in Europe or increasing prosperity, the British just chuckled at its lack of self-awareness.

So Project Fear was Remain’s only viable strategy, and if it was to work, it had to be full-on. One advantage for Remain was that it didn’t need to make any predictions about what would happen if it won. Unlike a political party promising the earth at an election, Remain’s warnings would only be tested if they lost, so they could really push the boat out on the doom-mongering. Of course, Leave won and all those predictions are coming home to roost for the likes of the OECD and HM Treasury. However, I doubt either Mr Cameron or even George Osborne are very bothered about that.

That is not to say Matthew Elliott’s fantastic Vote Leave didn’t matter. The point of a political campaign is not really to win the argument. Rather, it must identify its supporters and motivate them to get to the polling station on the big day. Vote Leave did that brilliantly.

The important point is that the referendum was not won because of narrow tactical concerns, mistakes made by Mr Cameron or Britain Stronger in Europe, or even because Leave voters were just protesting and didn’t mean to win. All these erroneous excuses have been made by Europhiles since 23rd June.

Leave triumphed because it is the settled will of the British people that they do not wish their country to be part of the European Union. Given that fact, Remain did as well as they could have done by pushing us so close. David Cameron deserves credit from Europhiles for giving Remain the best possible chance.

Why no one believed economists over Brexit

One of the reasons that Leave won the referendum on the EU was that no one believed the dire warnings promulgated by economists. We were told by HM Treasury, the IMF and just about everyone else who’d ever wielded a slide rule that Brexit would be a disaster. But when it comes to economic forecasting, we are right to be cynical. It wasn’t just the Queen who asked of the financial crisis, why did no one see it coming?

Human beings are quite good at microeconomics. That’s the economics asking how individual people and businesses behave. It studies why coffee shops price their beverages in the way they do. It considers the best way to get people to pay money into a trust box. It makes useful predictions about the various methods to incentivise employees. Microeconomics isn’t perfect; but it is getting better as telling us about how the world really works. You can find out a lot more in Tim Harford’s superlative book The Undercover Economist.

Conversely, human beings are quite bad at macroeconomics. That’s the economics asking how economies as a whole react to government policies and other long-term factors. It studies why unemployment goes up and down in the way it does. It considers the best ways to increase economic growth. But it fails to make any useful predictions about when there will next be a recession. Macroeconomics isn’t a complete basket case in that it has one or two successes to its name, such as the efficient markets hypothesis. Although some economists even manage to argue about that.

I’m not an economist. But as a historian of science, I have studied the history of a subject -science – that, once upon a time, was like macroeconomics is today. For centuries, scientists couldn’t make serviceable predictions or tell true theories from false ones. There were two very good reasons for this. The first was a lack of experimental data that could be used to test the theories. Experiments are difficult and easily misinterpreted. They need to give clear-cut results and to be repeatable. In any case, few saw the point of doing an experiment to prove something their theory already told them had to be correct. Early scientists lauded observation and could gather plenty of data. But their inability to test it was fatal.

The second reason early scientists failed was that no one was very interested in which theories worked in the real world. They were primarily concerned with how science could justify political and ethical conclusions. Scientific theories simply provided a way to understand nature that supported a particular moral or religious viewpoint. For example, the ancient Greek Epicurus said everything was made up of mindless atoms, which dovetailed nicely with his ethics. Christians rejected atomism because it invalidated transubstantiation.

Modern science now has enough experimental data to choose between theories and make accurate predictions. Microeconomics is like that too. Of course, it is by no means perfect. Microeconomists draw lots of false positives, make various mistakes and torture their data. But, at heart, they all agree what they are about and how the method is supposed to work. Microeconomists and scientists are successful for quite similar reasons.

Not so for macroeconomists. As a profession, they failed the call the financial crisis and, if they turn out to be right about Brexit, it will be down to luck. Admittedly, a few economists did predict the great recession, but probably fewer than you’d expect if all economic predictions were made randomly.

Macroeconomists are also divided into schools and they argue about policy according to the lights of the school to which they belong. Remember what I said about early scientists using their theories about nature to back up their political or religious agendas? Macroeconomists appear to be engaged in the same thing. Here is Andrew Lilico of Europe Economics defending the Conservative Party policy of austerity against a Keynesian. Meanwhile, this lengthy screed by Oxford’s Simon Wren-Lewis is a political polemic on behalf of the Labour Party dressed up as Keynesian analysis. I expect Ha-Joon Chang at Cambridge would call down a plague on both chez Lilico and Wren-Lewis. The mere fact that macroeconomists can’t agree on the most basic issues is damning evidence of how much trouble their discipline is in. Whatever is happening in the world, the Keynesian, the Marxist, the Austrian, the non-orthodox and the neo-Keynesian economist think can explain it in the light of their own theories.

The near-perfect correlation between the views of members of different economic schools and their political inclinations suggests very strongly that the data does not determine to which school they belong. Academic economists are often Keynesians who believe in government intervention while private sector economists are more likely to be laissez faire. This contrasts with, say, engineering where the laws of physics are understood in a very similar way at universities and aerospace manufacturers. Neither can economists say what will happen next. When they do get something right, it is simply luck. None of their theories work at the most basic level of being able to make practical and testable predictions.

This diversity of views is not entirely the fault of the macroeconomists. They can’t do many experiments because the systems that they study are too big. A central bank won’t cut interest rates for half the economy and leave them the same for the other half just to compare the effect of different policies. That means macroeconomists have to rely on observation rather than controlled experiments to build their theories. That was exactly the methodology employed by Aristotle to construct his scientific system. The result was a system of physics that seemed so rational and convincing that it lasted almost two thousand years. But it was wrong in almost every respect. Freudian psychoanalysts and Hippocratic physicians were in the same boat. They had elegant and reasonable systems of thought with which they could explain pretty much any observation. The pathologies of their patients could always be interpreted within the bounds of their theories. And yet the their theories were completely untrue.

It may seem rather crude to compare macroeconomics to such discredited systems of scientific thought. But the problem is not confined to economics. Any subject dominated by a lack of solid data and beholden to theory will face the same issue. Within modern science, string theory is well up this particular creek. Arguably, climate science is as well. The failure of computer models to predict the climate has increased the importance of theory and hardened the political allegiance of those engaged in debates on global warming.

What is the answer? For macroeconomics, there probably isn’t one. The economy is too complicated to predict, even if we understood exactly how it works, which we don’t. So it is best to understand economic debates as proxies for political arguments. The good thing about that is we can all get involved. Macroeconomics boils down to informed opinion and when it comes to opinions, we all have one.