Ruth Mason, Class of 1957 Research Professor of Law, University of Virginia, will visit McGill next Monday to give a talk on her forthcoming work with Leopolda Parada on the compatibility of digital services taxes with EU law. In brief Mason and Parada posit that the focus of proposed EU digital services taxes on very large multinationals is intended to target US-based giants (Google, Amazon, etc) but in fact implicate EU treaty-based anti-discrimination provisions applicable to their EU-based subsidiaries. Here is the abstract:
This Article uses the example of company-size classifications to explore the role of disproportionate impact and legislative intent in judicial review of Member State laws for nationality discrimination. Our discussion of disproportionate impact is mostly descriptive—we explore how the Court has resolved questions of quantum and proof in the cases. Our discussion of intent is mostly normative—we argue, contrary to current doctrine, that courts should consider the legislature’s intentions as probative, but not dispositive, of discrimination.
We chose company size for two reasons. First, discussion of company size as covert nationality discrimination is new to the literature. Second, Member States increasingly use company-size classifications in tax laws; Poland and Hungary recently used turnover (as opposed to net income) to determine tax rates; and Spain proposes to use turnover to establish liability for its new digital services tax.
To illustrate how the Court of Justice might apply our approach to size discrimination, we consider whether the company-size thresholds in Spain’s and the EU’s recent proposals for a digital services tax constitute covert nationality discrimination. More generally, cooperative negotiations at the OECD towards reform that would appropriately tax the modern, digital economy must account for limitations imposed by EU law, and in particular its prohibition on nationality discrimination.The tax policy colloquium at McGill is supported by a grant made by the law firm Spiegel Sohmer, Inc., for the purpose of fostering an academic community in which learning and scholarship may flourish. The land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk), a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations. This fall the Colloquium explores a range of contemporary tax topics across three disciplines--law, economics, and philosophy. The complete colloquium schedule is below and more information is available here. The Colloquium is convened by Allison Christians, H. Heward Stikeman Chair in Taxation Law.
As always, the colloquium is free and open to all. Prof Mason will speak on Monday December 3 at 4-5:30pm, New Chancellor Day Hall, Room 102.
Tagged as: colloquium EU international law McGill tax policy TFEU
With the return of Canada's Parliament to business this week, debate theoretically should take place on Bill C-82, An Act to implement a multilateral convention to implement tax treaty related measures to prevent base erosion and profit shifting, a.k.a. the "Multilateral Instrument in Respect of Tax Conventions Act" (the official short title). But we can call it the BEPS bill since its job is to implement a set of consensus positions the OECD developed to eliminate "Base Erosion and Profit Shifting" by multinational taxpayers.
This BEPS Bill implements the OECD's MLI to Prevent BEPS, which is a multilateral treaty that amends existing bilateral tax treaties. The rationale is that countries were engaging in or at least facilitating BEPS, and they were often doing so through tax treaties, so a blanket change to a few thousand of these treaties was needed to prevent ongoing tax avoidance.
Given that the BEPS bill adopts one treaty to rule them all, Parliament might be expected to undertake careful scrutiny of its terms, but these expectations are not likely to be met. A study I completed with help from a very adept graduate student in 2016, entitled “While Parliament Sleeps: Tax Treaty Practice in Canada,” (published in the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law / Revue de droit parlementaire et politique 10 (1) : 15-38, March / mars 2016 and available in draft form here), found that over a fifteen year period, Parliament has adopted legislation implementing 32 international tax agreements without a single standing vote occurring in the House of Commons at any point in the legislative process.
These 32 agreements collectively form over 750 pages of binding law in Canada, none of which was considered for more than two sittings at any stage of consideration in either the Senate or House of Commons.
In Canada, tax-treaty implementing legislation is generally introduced in the Senate, studied very little there, and then sent to the House of Commons where it receives even less attention. Although tax scholars focus, rightfully, on scrutinizing the substance of tax treaties, we should not be lulled into ignoring the process by which Parliament discharges its role in legislating tax treaty implementation. To that end, some of the debate in Parliament is downright disappointing.
For example, consider the most recent exercise (written after my study), when the Senate was seized with Bill S-4, whose official summary reads:
This enactment implements a convention between the Government of Canada and the Government of the State of Israel for the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of fiscal evasion with respect to taxes on income and an arrangement between the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Canada for the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of fiscal evasion with respect to taxes on income. It also amends the Canada–Hong Kong Tax Agreement Act, 2013 to add to it, for greater certainty, an interpretation provision.In a speech of only a few minutes on the bill, the Legislative Deputy of the Government Representative in the Senate stated:
It is urgent that we move forward with the study of this bill because if we want the agreements on double taxation to go into effect in 2017, the bill must receive Royal Assent by the end of 2016. Therefore, I invite all honourable Senators who wish to speak to this bill to do so as quickly as possible so that the bill may be referred to a committee as soon as possible.In total, the entire House Finance Committee's study took less than 15 minutes. The third reading debate in the Senate lasted less than 10 minutes and, after calling the bill a "no-brainer," a "marvellous bill," and "a continuity-of-government bill" that "does wonderful things for Canadian industry and consumers alike," the Senators continued with this exchange:
Senator Day: Should I tell anybody what this bill is about?Then followed a dubiously notable comment by Senator Plett that "I'd like to add my voice and simply say that this, again, is clear evidence that occasionally a good biscuit can be found in a garbage can."
Some Hon. Senators: No.
The idea that Parliament should rush to meet the government’s preferred timetable in what the Senate characterizes as a "garbage can" of a bill (or of a government--I am not sure which) is highly problematic. If it takes longer to scrutinize a bill, so be it. The government – for its part – didn’t leave Parliament much time in this case, having only introduced S-4 in the Senate on November 1st, 2016. By the time the Legislative Deputy of the Government Representative in the Senate got to make her speech on November 24th, the clock was ticking quickly toward the MPs' and Senators' winter break.
I single out this debate not only for the unprincipled concession to expedited timing, but particularly for the exchange that followed. A Senator asked the Legislative Deputy of the Government Representative in the Senate “In your opinion, does the bill before us pertain to our participation in the WTO?” The response: “I do not know much about this bill. However, I do know that it is important, that it is urgent that we move it along, and that it has significant consequences.”
Putting aside the carefree decision to speak to a bill one “does not know much about” and the apparent confusion about how the bill relates to the WTO (did the Senator mistake a tax treaty for a trade agreement?), it would be hard to characterize the limited early Senate Chamber debate as well-informed or thoughtful in any way. On the House side, the bill was fast-tracked – a motion passed by unanimous consent stipulated that “when the House begins debate on the third reading motion of the Bill, a Member from each recognized party, as well as a Member from the Bloc Québécois, may speak for not more than five minutes, with no question and comment period, after which the Bill shall be deemed read a third time and passed."
As such, in its last debate, the bill received less than 20 minutes of attention in the House with no questions –that is, each party spoke but there was no dialogue in substance. The bill received Royal Assent on December 15th, 2016.
This brings me back to the BEPS Bill, which actually bucks the trend by being introduced in the House of Commons instead of the Senate. This is important because even though Senate debates on tax treaty implementing legislation are limited (as evidenced above), the Senate is still the body that generally studies these matters and has nominally built up expertise. Because the general trend in Parliament is that the Chamber that receives a tax bill second is the one that studies it less, one is left to hope without confidence that the House will undertake its due diligence.
There is cause for concern with C-82. Unlike the other tax treaty implementing bills I studied, this was preceded by a ways and means motion that provided the text of the bill in advance. In other words, the Minister of Finance tabled a notice on May 28th that contained essentially what would become C-82. But, rather than debate the Notice, the House on June 19th deemed that motion agreed to and further deemed the BEPS bill formally introduced.
Without venturing too far into the procedural weeds, it is perhaps sufficient to observe that there could have been a debate on that ways and means motion. Instead, the decision in June deemed this motion adopted ‘on division’ – that is, dissent is indicated for the record but we don’t know who disagreed or on what basis because there was no actual debate on the record.
This leads me to wonder whether we’ll see an actual debate occur on the merits of C-82 if even its introduction was fast-tracked through deeming. I doubt it. After all, MPs (and Senators alike) often find tax matters confusing and technical. Maybe in this case especially, the whole things seems like a foregone conclusion since we are talking about an OECD initiative in which Canada has been involved over many years. Moreover, Canada's undertakings in the MLI are modest to say the least. Even so, that doesn’t mean these bills don’t deserve careful study since it is agreed that certain tax arrangements erode Canada’s tax base (cf: the recently decided Alta Energy case). It is much harder (and more costly) to re-negotiate and re-legislate (if need be) a treaty than to get things right the first time (for a discussion, see See Charlie Feldman, “Parliamentary Practice and Treaties” (2015) 9 J. Parliamentary & Pol. L. 585). Adopt in haste, repent at leisure ought to be a mantra for tax treaties.
Unfortunately, Canada's Parliament has limited involvement in the treaty process and only so much influence over treaty-implementing legislation. An additional concern is that there is only so much time left in the legislative calendar with an election a year away. The government has important pieces of legislation moving – including implementing the TPP, adopting the first-ever national legislation on accessibility, and an election law overhaul that the government has already tried to fast-track. Moreover, of the 366 commitments the Trudeau government has made, the government’s own analysis indicates that just 96 have thus far been met. Many others also
Moreover, Parliament already has many bills to consider which have yet to complete the legislative process. Parliament's Legislation-at-a-glance page shows just how much each House has before it already, including criminal justice and family law reforms, firearms regulation, and military justice changes remaining in the House, and many big legislative matters before the Senate including bills on sustainable development, access to information, and fisheries reform. While the BEPS bill could be a step ahead of bills yet to come, it is easy to imagine easier-to-debate matters (such as labour reforms) getting much more debate in the House and, if and when it does get to the Senate, that body will be even more pressed for time given all the other items from the House being added to its plate.
Tagged as: BEPS Canada MLI scholarship
I'm very happy to announce the 2018 McGill Tax Policy Colloquium, which will take an interdisciplinary approach to tax policy analysis. The colloquium is made possible by a grant from Spiegel Sohmer. The land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk), a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations. The distinguished speakers who will contribute to this year’s colloquium include:
- Oct 22: Sam Singer, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Thompson Rivers University. Prof. Singer's research focuses on tax dispute resolution, the policy rationales underlying tax measures, and the regulation of charities and charitable giving.
- Nov 12: Lindsay Tedds, Scientific Director of Fiscal and Economic Policy and Associate Professor, Department of Economics, University of Calgary. Dr. Tedds’ research focuses on tax policy and she has done extensive work with the Government of Canada in the areas of public economics and policy implementation.
- Nov 19: Laurens van Apeldoorn, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Leiden University. Prof. Van Apeldoorn’s research examines the nature and prospects of the sovereign state, with a special focus on the normative aspects of international taxation rules in relation to the global justice.
- Nov 26: Frances Woolley, Full Professor, Department of Economics, Carleton University and President, Canadian Economics Association. Prof. Wooley’s expertise and research focus on economics of the family, gender and intra-house inequality, taxation and benefits for and of families, and feminist economics.
- Dec 3: Ruth Mason, Full Professor, School of Law, University of Virginia. Prof. Mason’s research focuses on international, comparative, and state taxation. Her work on tax non-discrimination laws’ effect on cross-border commerce has been cited extensively, including by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tagged as: colloquium McGill scholarship tax policy
Prof. Laurens van Apeldoorn of the University of Leiden will present a working paper at McGill, hosted by the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill Law and the Stikeman Chair in Tax Law (me). Here is the abstract:
Exploitation in global supply chains impacts prices that in turn bear on the allocation of corporate income tax revenue to jurisdictions where multinational enterprises transact. This presentation will develop a concept of exploitation based on the violation of the right to a living wage, put this in the context of discussions of transfer mispricing in multinational enterprises, and consider the economic dimension of the allocation of corporate income tax revenue in relation to public goods provisions in low-income countries where exploitation occurs.Prof. Van Apeldoorn is currently visiting McGill’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism as an O’Brien Fellow in Residence (Sept-Dec 2017). He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the Centre for Political Philosophy at Leiden University, where his research broadly focuses on the nature and prospects of the sovereign state and more recently considers the principles of international taxation in relation to global justice. As some readers will no doubt be aware, Laurens' presentation connects to collaborative work he and I are undertaking that probes the meaning and significance of taxing income "where value is created," working paper forthcoming.
The talk will be held from 1pm to 12:30 with lunch being served beginning at 12:30, in Chancellor Day Hall, Stephen Scott Seminar Room (OCDH 16), 3644 rue Peel, Montreal, Quebec. This event is free and open to all.
Tagged as: justice McGill scholarship sovereignty tax policy transfer pricing
Tsilly Dagan recently posted this new paper on the limitations of normative tax analysis that constrains itself to the state. Here is the abstract:
Inequality, as well as the scope of the duty of justice to reduce it, has always been a central concern of political justice. Income taxation has been seen as a key tool for redistribution and the state was the arena for discussions of justice. Globalization and the tax competition it fosters among states change the context for the discussion of distributive justice. Given the state’s fading coercive power in taxation and the decreasing power of its citizenry to co-author its collective will due to global competition, we can no longer assume that justice can be realized within the parameters of the state.
International tax policy in an effort to retain justice often opts for cooperation as a vehicle to support distributive justice. But cooperation among states is more than a way for them to promote their aims through bargaining. Rather, it is a way for states to regain legitimacy by sustaining their very ability to ensure the collective action of their citizens and to treat them with equal respect and concern. The traditional discussion in international taxation seems to endorse a statist position — implicitly assuming that when states bargain for a multilateral deal, justice is completely mediated by the agreement of the states.
In contrast, this Article argues that such a multilateral regime intended to provide the state with fundamental legitimacy requires independent justification. Contrary to the conventional statist position, I maintain that cooperating states have a duty to ensure that the constituents of all cooperating states are not treated unjustly because of the agreement. I argue that not only cosmopolitanism but political justice too requires that a justiciable cooperative regime must improve (or at least not worsen) the welfare of the least well-off citizens in all cooperating states. I explain that cooperation alone is no guarantee of improved welfare and that certain transfer payments between rich and poor countries might be required to ensure this.This is an important and provocative paper, highly recommended reading.
Tagged as: globalization governance institutions justice scholarship tax policy
Last fall I via twitter I shouted out two of my students who won the Tax Analysts Student Writing Competition, in the international category:
I posted about the first paper long ago but I inadvertently neglected to post the second. Correcting that oversight, here it is, available at Tax Analysts: A World Tax Court: The Solution to Tax Treaty Arbitration, by Jake Heyka. Here is the brief abstract by TA:Very proud that two of my students @LAWMcGill won this year: @montano_cabezas (2015) and @Heyka14 (2017) https://t.co/XjWV2A66Cj— Allison Christians (@taxpolblog) July 11, 2016
Jake Heyka examines tax treaty arbitration standards while demonstrating that as a matter of fundamental justice, arbitration should be revamped. He proposes the creation of a world tax court.Heyka begins by observing that "[t]he institution of international tax treaty arbitration (ITTA) is hotly debated in international business and tax law. While the process is helpful because it pressures governments to resolve contested tax decisions, opponents have called it 'secret and evil.'"
He then makes the provocative observation that "the use of ITTA ultimately frustrates the resolution of tax disputes and should be supplanted by a world tax court." In support of his proposal, Heyka lays out the history and critique of tax treaty arbitration (including by me) and concludes:
Standardizing ITTA will create some procedural certainty but does not guarantee consistent use of those procedures, allow the public to see whether the process is fair, or establish reliable precedent. As Lindencrona and Mattson suggested over 30 years ago, ITTA should be a stepping stone to what the world ultimately needs: a world tax court.
As radical as it may seem, the idea is not far-fetched. World courts exist in many commercial and noncommercial contexts, and those that deal with money rather than crime are followed by many countries and used quite often. Moreover, state authority is regularly ceded to resolve disputes between commercial parties in arbitration courts such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the London Court of International Arbitration, and many other arbitration institutes. A world tax court would merely serve as a place to resolve tax disputes in a similar manner while sustaining the public nature of tax law.While I am late to post it, Heyka's article remains timely as the inclusion of arbitration in the recently released MLI is sure to keep the issue front and center in international tax discourse. Congrats Jake, and sorry for the delay in posting your accomplishment.
I'm in Oxford today for the Said Business School's annual summer conference, staying for the academic conference the remainder of the week. Here is today's program; see comments on twitter with #ct21
The need for reform, and current policy proposals
Michael Devereux, Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation
Welcome and introduction
Chair: John Vella, Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation
Michael Graetz, Columbia University and Yale University
The need for reform
Michael Devereux, Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation
Principles for reform
Wolfgang Schön, Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance, Munich
Reforms on the current political agenda
Reuven Avi-Yonah, University of Michigan
Valeska Gronert, European Commission
Residual Profit Allocation Proposal
Chair: Wolfgang Schön, Max Planck Institute for Tax Law and Public Finance, Munich
Paul Oosterhuis, Skadden Arps LLP
Michael Keen, International Monetary Fund
Jennifer Blouin, Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania
Steve Edge, Slaughter and May
Destination Based Cash Flow Tax Proposal, and developing countries
Chair: Judith Freedman, University of Oxford
Michael Devereux, Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation
Rachel Griffith, Institute for Fiscal Studies and University of Manchester
Malcolm Gammie QC, One Essex Court
Chair: Michael Devereux, Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation (Chair)
Ian Brimicombe, AstraZeneca Plc
Alex Cobham, Tax Justice Network
Michael Graetz, Columbia University and Yale University
Rt Hon Dame Margaret Hodge MBE MP, House of Commons
Vanessa Houlder, Financial Times
John Kay, Financial Times
Tagged as: conference corporate tax tax policy
Next week, I will be participating in a workshop at Tilburg University in the Netherlands on the topic of International Tax Governance, a timely topic especially given the recent developments in the coordination of the international organizations, the expansion of the OECD's global forum idea to monitor BEPS, the impact of the state aid cases within and beyond Europe, and the increasing role of NGOs in shaping international tax policy. Here is the program:
|10:00- 10:30||Welcome and registration|
|Cees Peters (Tilburg University): International Tax Governance in Action|
|11:00- 12:30||Session 1 - Transparency|
|Edwin Visser (PwC): reaction of MNC's to transparency pressure: CbCR and CSR discussion (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)|
|Maaike van Diepen (Tax Justice Network): The perspective of an NGO (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)|
|12:30- 13:30||Lunch break|
|13:30- 15:00||Session 2 - EU State Aid|
|Allison Christians (McGill University): a US perspective - the reaction of the US government and US MNC's|
|Anna Gunn (Leiden University): an EU perspective - the reaction of the EU Member States and EU MNC's|
|15:30- 17:00||Session 3 - Compliance of states with new norms of international taxation|
|Carla De Pietro (Tilburg University and University of Bologna): Implementation of the OECD BEPS measures (Action 6) in the light of the relationship between international and EU law.|
Tagged as: conference governance institutions international law tax policy
I've talked to a few journalists and commented a bit on the Panama Papers (e.g. here at 6:09 and here) but I've refrained from writing much to date because I am uneasy about a couple of central themes in this story: first, the constant confluence of tax evasion and tax avoidance, which are two completely different phenomena that require two very different responses in my view, and second the bashing of Panama as if only bad things can be done there, so anyone who does anything there from anywhere else must be doing a bad thing.
I am uneasy about this bashing because, although I think there are bad guys doing bad things in Panama, I also think there are bad guys doing bad things all over the world and I don't like Panama being singled out; I am also wary of suggesting that in a world of global trade and investment flows, anything and everything done through or with Panama must eternally be tinged with a sense of wrongdoing. This sense seems to imbue the imagination in the campaigns to "shut down the tax havens." What, exactly, does that mean? Does it mean that some countries, because someone decides they are mostly bad actors, must be effectively cut off from the global financial system and no one must be allowed to transact with or in these countries from the outside? What if most of the world are actually bad actors, each scheming to use its tax system to undermine and undercut the others? That's essentially the vision drawn by the OECD in countering BEPS, so we will run into some problems if we take this reasoning to its logical conclusion. But if this is not the idea behind shutting down tax havens, then what is envisioned, exactly?
Tax justice advocates seem to envision an invasive global regulatory regime in which every person in the world will have all of their assets and financial information catalogued and tagged and made public to everyone else, in order to make sure no one can break any tax rules. If this is being done just for tax--that is, if this is what it takes to make the income tax "work," I am not sure that the income tax is worth all of that trouble and everything given up to achieve it. That includes privacy, which appears to itself have become a suspicious word in certain circles, as if only those doing bad things have a desire to keep anything about their lives private. Let us recall Glenn Greenwald's words on why privacy should not come to be seen as a sinister desire. It is possible to break the tax law like it is possible to break any other law. But is requiring everyone to show all of their assets to everyone else in order to prove no laws have been broken a valid response to this enduring problem? I cannot agree with this Orwellian vision of the world. I also do not think this view is sensible if the issue is really driven by tax. If it is, then surely we can find a less invasive way to fund public goods and services.
This brings me to the evasion/avoidance point, which I find being abused just as much by lawmakers and policy advocates as it is by journalists who don't know any better.
Tax evasion is a crime that involves hiding things from a legal authority. Tax avoidance is not a crime that involves hiding: it is achieved in full view of the legal authorities. The former is a very very difficult problem but is not primarily a tax policy problem. Instead it is primarily a global financial system problem that is created, like most global financial system problems, by virtue of the difficulty of regulating behaviours in a world in which technology has moved us far beyond the frontiers of the nation state.
On the other hand, 'aggressive" tax avoidance (loosely speaking; more analysis here)--that is, avoidance not intentionally allowed by rules such as those to defer tax on retirement savings--is a tax policy issue. Taxpayers and their advisers are always going to cook up new schemes to get around inconvenient tax rules. Knowing this, regulators must decide whether and how to react. They may react with any number of tools that create an infinite call and response loop among regulators, taxpayers, administrators, and judges. These include such things as general and specific anti-avoidance rules, uncertain tax position disclosure, and random audit strategies. None of these things has the first thing to say about how to deal with a corrupt government official who steals money from the public fisc and invests it in US and European stocks and bonds through a maze of trusts and companies formed in other jurisdictions. It's just a totally different problem.
I know and understand that bad guys are always lurking around to defeat the tax law, as they are in any regulatory field. I don't have any special insights about how to deal with corruption and criminality. But in my experience with tax, when a government moves to "crack down" on bad guys, the really serious criminals--including government officials themselves--all too often escape while everyone else finds themselves increasingly tracked, surveilled, and treated like criminals even as the resources to cope with fixable tax policy flaws diminish. I don't have any answers for these worries.
Tagged as: evasion governance offshore tax policy
As observers of global tax policy know, international tax issues are dealt with in bilateral treaties that more or less adhere to a 'model' tax treaty developed and periodically updated by the OECD (provisions in a rival UN Model are occasionally invoked, and the US has its own model with its own distinctions and idiosyncrasies). There are those who have long lamented the problem of having thousands of bilateral agreements that can't be easily or quickly updated when the OECD revises the model (thus curbing the impact of OECD soft law).
As part of the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) initiative, the OECD is currently developing a
"Multilateral instrument on tax treaty measures to tackle BEPS" which would be used to 'modify' all existing tax treaties in force among signatory countries. The OECD says this mechanism (which it calls an 'innovative approach') 'would preserve the bilateral nature of tax treaties' even as it modified all existing bilateral treaties 'in a synchronized way'. The OECD says there are "limited precedents" for modifying bilateral treaties with a multilateral instrument.
But are there really any precedents at all? I couldn't think of any off-hand. A quick check with a few international law colleagues yielded few comparators. Tim Meyer suggested the EU harmonizing efforts on Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) as a candidate, albeit noting that this does not contemplate directly overriding existing BITs but requires EU members to change their bilateral arrangements to conform with EU investment policy.
Tim also made the interesting observation that"treaties that reference customary international law standards, such as BITs’ reference to the minimum standard of treatment" could be overridden in a somewhat similar fashion. He explained that "[i]f custom changed, such as through the promulgation of soft law documents or multilateral treaties, it would change the BITs that incorporate the customary standard. That isn’t exactly the same thing [as the new OECD multilateral instrument], but similar."
The OECD's work in developing "global consensus" has in the past led some to describe OECD standards as "soft law" and others to suggest that the OECD may be understood to articulate customary international tax law; moreover the OECD has itself now taken to describing its model as soft law (including in its 2014 report on the multilateral instrument). I have urged caution in defining OECD proclamations as soft law or customary law given the OECD's exclusive membership of mainly rich countries, which excludes all of the BRICs and most of the rest of the world, as I think the nomenclature lends an imprimatur of legitimacy to OECD proclamations that may not be deserved. But it seems clear that the BEPS action items, and the new global forum to "monitor compliance" with them, are intended to overcome the exclusivity problem while endowing OECD norms with ever-greater law-like effect (without offending the unicorn that is "tax sovereignty").
It seems likely to me that a multilateral agreement that modifies existing tax treaties is actually intended to ultimately replace those treaties, making small and incremental modifications until the underlying bilateral treaties become superfluous or extinct. Accordingly I view the OECD's multilateral 'modification' function to be an exercise in creeping harmonization as well as "ossification" (or maybe transformation) of soft law into hard law.
Adding together the other elements of BEPS, including the new global forum to compel national compliance with 'minimum standards' as they develop, I recently suggested that the OECD's tax folks are giving birth to a new global tax order complete with rules, audits, and reform processes. This is perhaps not the order envisioned by those who have in the past called for global tax coordination in a supranational body for the sake of pursuing global tax justice. If the OECD-based regime is not fully supranational yet, it is close, and it looks increasingly inevitable once it sets a multilateral agreement in place.
There are many fascinating threads of soft law and public international law are at work in these developments. I recently came across an article by Jung-Hong Kim on the topic, entitled A New Age of Multilateralism in International Taxation?, abstract:
With the OECD/G20 BEPS project, the current international tax landscape is facing challenges and changes unprecedented for the past several decades. This paper looks at the development of bilateralism and multilateralism in the current international tax regime, takes stock of the BEPS works and analyzes the proposed Multilateral Instrument. Then, the paper discusses the emerging multilateral tax order in international taxation.
Historically, bilateralism has been the constant trend of tax treaties, and later multilateral tax treaties have emerged in some regional areas. There being some deficiencies with bilateral treaties such as dilapidation, delay in entry into force and vulnerability to treaty shopping, the experience of multilateral tax treaties can help build a foundation for future development of a multilateral tax treaty to complement the bilateral tax treaty network.
With a caveat that BEPS output is fluid at this stage, drawing on the various examples of existing non-tax multilateral treaties, the Multilateral Instrument will be a desirable and feasible tool to reflect the necessary changes resulting from BEPS project. For Korea whose tax treaties need a systematic upgrade after a noticeable growth in quantity, the negotiation on the Multilateral Instrument of the BEPS project will be a great opportunity to revisit the existing bilateral tax treaties and to make appropriate amendments with bilateral treaty partners in multilateral format.
Beyond BEPS, supposing that the work on the Multilateral Instrument results in a multilateral convention, the inevitable question is the emergence of a multilateral tax order. In terms of feasibility of such a multilateral tax order, there are both positive and negative sides. The positive side is that the relative success of Global Forum on Tax Transparency can be a guidance on the post-BEPS multilateral tax order. On the other hand, the phenomenon of diminishing multilateral trade regime and bilateral investment treaty regime seem to be a negative evidence. Another point to consider is the appropriate forum to manage the multilateral tax order. For this, there are two competing organizations, i.e., the OECD CFA and UN tax committee, each of which having some limit to be developed into an intergovernmental forum.
After all, the essential question will be how those major players such as the U.S., EU, China, India etc. could build a consensus by compromising on the institutional and substantive aspects of the multilateral tax order. For now, for the emerging multilateral tax order to proceed on a sound basis, the work of the BEPS project should bear substantive and meaningful fruits.