Monday 21 January 2019

David McWilliams: Let's make Europe work for us - by being as American as possible

Apple CEO Tim Cook Picture: AP
Apple CEO Tim Cook Picture: AP

David McWilliams

The latest Apple tax revelations mean that Ireland is now on a collision course with the EU Commission and by extension with the EU itself. In a narrow sense - and this might be the only sense that matters - this is a win/win situation for Ireland.

However, the issues raised are much bigger than the Apple case and centre on how you think the Irish economy might become more prosperous in the years ahead. If the latest spat with the EU (frankly, a directionless 20th century arrangement) forces us to think about what Ireland will look like in a global 21st century economy, then it will have been well worth it.

In terms of this case, let's examine the likely options. They are, in effect, binary - either Ireland wins the appeal or not.

If we lose the appeal, we get €13bn (possibly as much as €20bn according to some calculations). This is good for the Exchequer and as long as it is not spent on public sector salaries, this could be a capital windfall for the State, used to improve a variety of public investments where we are lacking.

In terms of the biggest providers of private investments in the country, the US multinationals, we can argue that we have fought the good fight on their behalf and therefore we should be regarded in the future as friends of American capital. Maybe it is naïve to regard these companies as in any way swayed by loyalty, but this angle is worth considering because we have already taken sides. The bread is buttered, so to speak.

If we win the case, we are back to where we were before the commission dropped their bombshell. Ireland will continue to be the location of choice for American capital. This is significant because without the multinationals we would not have a capital base.

In fact, winning the appeal will probably lead to a tightening of our tax treatment of foreign capital. If it does, then this too would be a gain for Ireland because American capital operating here would have to pay the 12.5pc they are supposed to, policed by a bruised, vigilant but locally impotent EU.

The latest figures we have show that US multinationals made $100bn, or €96bn, here. However, they only paid $4bn in tax rather than the $12bn they should pay based on a 12pc tax rate. The long-term benefit to Ireland would be the missing €8bn that would be paid.

Thus it appears that, win or lose, Ireland will benefit from the case.

But there is something else, arguably much more significant, that could be triggered by this case. It concerns Ireland's competitive strategy over the next 50 years.

It seems to me that there's lots of talk about the "Irish economy", giving the impression that the Irish economy is an entity like say the German economy, where domestic policies determine levels of investment, income and thus employment.

This is not true. The Irish economy is not an economy in the true sense of the word. We are simply a small part of a global supply chain. This is a good thing. The path to prosperity is to abandon this notion of the autonomous Irish economy and embrace the idea that Ireland's investment, and thus income, savings and employment levels, will come from being Europe's most competitive cog in the global supply chain. This is where our new capital will come from and this is where productivity will come from.

Once we have the investment and income, we can choose where to spend it locally.

Let others distract themselves with the delusions of national autonomy; we should focus on the opportunities of the global supply chain. This means keeping Irish corporation tax rates low, being reasonably open to immigrants and staying broadly within the EU.

When I say broadly, I mean this is as far as it goes for integration. From now on, we should opt out of all the plans devised by the serial integrationists in Brussels.

This means no tax harmonisation. In fact, we should cut our corporation tax if necessary. But it also means that we have full access to the EU market, unfettered.

While many in Ireland will argue that we should do a Brexit, I suggest that we should do precisely the opposite. Rather than leave the EU, we should insist on never leaving. We must realise that we cannot be pushed out! We can stay on our own terms. Therefore, we could become the most American economy within the EU, with all the attendant advantages this bestows in terms of investment, incomes, technology and employment. Even if Brussels doesn't like it, there is no mechanism for the EU to kick us out no matter how delinquent they think we are.

Having tried to attack our economic model using the Trojan Horse of state aids, we should attack their integrationist aspirations through the Trojan Horse of full compliance - full compliance with everything up to now.

This would allow us to remain good Europeans - whatever that means - while still trading merrily with our American friends.

After being subjected to the worst form of bureaucratic bullying by the EU, we should simply dust ourselves down and carry on. This will mean using the veto. So be it. Use it as many times as necessary because the EU can't touch our tax independence, nor can it ban goods made by corporations incorporated in Ireland from free access to its 500 million consumers.

The EU, under European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager, has revealed too much. In a game of chess, the commission is playing monopoly and we now have to remain calm and move our bishops, diagonally, into position.

Irish Independent

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