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World leaders stepping up fight against global tax evasion

Global tax evasion

The emergence of the Panama Papers scandal has brought the issue of tax evasion back under the microscope once again.
The methods used by many high-profile figures around the world sparked anger among many members of the general public, with leaders coming under increased pressure to take decisive action.

It was therefore perhaps no surprise to see finance ministers from across the EU approve a series of measures aimed at tackling the tax-evading methods exposed in the damning leak.

Among the new proposals is the publishing of a joint list of tax havens in an effort to expose jurisdictions used by both individuals and companies looking to either evade or minimise tax.

According to The Guardian, Pierre Moscovici, the European economic affairs commissioner, is confident of having this list published later in the summer, with many countries across the EU already having their own individual lists.

However, much of that data has been based on differing criteria, meaning that the process of drawing up a single unified list could prove difficult.

Nevertheless, the level of urgency for surrounding such measures has intensified over recent weeks, meaning that officials may find they have choice but to find a way to overcome such obstacles.

Other measures that have been proposed include the automatic exchange of data in order to clarify the real owners of shell companies, which was announced during G20 talks in Washington DC earlier this month.

However, the proposal of country-by-country reporting, which has long been favoured by many tax activists, could face some opposition.

Advocates claim the proposals are needed in order to combat big corporations secretly shifting profits to low-tax jurisdictions, usually by way of utilising smaller companies.

There is already some division on implementing that approach, with critics arguing that sensitive corporate data should be remain the concern of tax authorities and should not be placed into the public domain.

Stepping up the warnings

Nevertheless, there has still been a noticeable step up in the efforts of the world's leading finance ministers have seemingly taken action.

The spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank has culminated with tax jurisdictions being given until July to comply with the new measures aimed at increasing transparency surrounding tax practices.

Pressure on Panama itself has heightened, with Bahrain the only other country to have decided not to commit to the new standards.

But cracking down on havens themselves, a goal that could include creating blacklists of countries guilty of not improving their practices, may be stifled by a corporate culture of tax avoidance.

US president Barack Obama has subsequently said the latest leak illustrated the scale of avoidance involving Fortune 500, adding that the costs involved may have run into trillions of dollars around the world.

“There is no doubt that the problem of global tax avoidance generally is a huge problem, he told reporters at the White House. "The problem is that a lot of this stuff is legal, not illegal.”

“We shouldn’t make it legal to engage in transactions just to avoid taxes,” he added, praising instead “the basic principle of making sure everyone pays their fair share”.

Obama is likely to have a very good idea about the scale of the stamping out tax avoidance.

Soon after taking office in 2009, the current president outlined plans to try and reclaim some  $200 billion in unpaid taxes to the US.

However, eight years on arguably little has changed, with the US still a popular venue for tax avoidance.

A unified response from the G20 may well present a stronger response to the problem, but it is nevertheless set to be a challenge.