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There needs to be a “comprehensive global approach” against secret tax structures, says the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, who called for “zero tolerance”. Speaking to Parliament’s Panama Committee on Wednesday, the former advisor to the Panamanian government suggested that secrecy in tax affairs should be treated like a disease which needs to be isolated.

Tax secrecy is the “darker side of globalisation, ” said Stiglitz, adding that the hiding of money undermined the functioning of global society. “So there has to be, basically, a comprehensive global approach with essentially zero tolerance for secrecy.”

President-elect tax “avoider-in-chief”

The Columbia University professor expressed reservations about the U.S.’s future commitment to fighting tax secrecy, pointing to President-elect’s record as a tax avoider.  “When your president is avoider-in-chief, it’s hard to have confidence in where we are going to go,” he said.  But he added that Europe, acting alone, could make a significant difference.

He described as “absolutely critical” the creation of publically searchable registries of the owners of corporations who ultimately benefit .  “The reason it has to be searchable is because it has to be possible not only for law enforcement agencies, but also the media to find out who is doing what activities,” he said.

Stiglitz resigned in August from the inquiry panel set up by the Panamanian govern after the leak of the Panama papers after the authorities refused to guarantee publication of his final report.   Introducing Professor Stiglitz, Werner Langen (EPP, DE) Chairman of the Panama Committee, said the common goal of all EU member states was to end “the obscure practices of companies who are selling secrecy. The most effective tool we have at hand is transparency”.

Tackling “enablers” of tax avoidance

The former advisor backed the suggestion by Jeppe Kofod (S&D, DK) that there should be stronger sanctions against the “enablers” of tax avoidance, evasion and money laundering, such as law firms, advisors and wealth managers.  Countries that refuse to comply with “transparency norms” should be cut off, he suggested, including prohibiting non-compliant companies from doing business with firms from compliant countries. 

Stiglitz likened companies which refused to comply with “global norms” to carriers of disease.  He said the EU could adopt an approach such as “you have a contagious disease and we won’t allow our corporations to interact with you.”

Petr Jezek (ALDE, CZ) raised concerns about enforcing transparency rules not only against small off-shore jurisdictions, but also “on-shore jurisdictions“ in major economies, like the UK and the US.  Stiglitz pointed out that most tax evasion and avoidance took place outside of Panama.

He said the EU “shouldn’t discriminate between Panama and the United States.”  He acknowledged the role of realpolitik but “the fact is that if there are these secrecy havens within the United States, you need to take strong action against them.”

Transparency in international trade agreements

Stiglitz added that the EU could also consider adding transparency provisions in international trade agreements requiring trade partners to meet minimum transparency requirements such as a register of beneficial ownership or minimum corporate tax rates. “Put a floor on tax competition through minimum tax rates (...)and get rid of the extremes of tax competition that we see today,” he said.