Big multinationals may have to bid farewell to the Irish tax haven they knew

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With exotic nicknames like Double Irish, Dutch Sandwich or Single Malt, Ireland’s many tax-avoidance schemes have long been a favorite of multinational companies—and the staple of international talks on the fight against tax havens. For years, Irish governments fiercely defended the country’s “tax sovereignty” in the matter, deaf to the repeated calls from other EU member states or international organizations to close the many loopholes.

Multinationals, notably in the high-tech or pharmaceutical sectors, have long housed their European or world operations in Ireland to benefit from Dublin’s tax generosity. But the victory of Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist party, in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections may bring this tradition to an end. As the largest party coming out of the polls, Sinn Féin has embarked on the task of forming a new coalition government. It may not succeed. But if it does, it would seem natural for its platform to be implemented, at least in part. And even if it doesn’t, its program and ideas can weigh on future policy.

There are two ways this would affect the multinationals that have elected to pay their taxes in Ireland—or as critics would allege, to pay as little tax as possible in Ireland. The first only concerns Apple. The second, all the companies involved.

Sinn Féin has pledged to stop the lawsuit that the previous government filed against a 2016 decision of the European Commission, which ruled that tax breaks extended to Apple AAPL, +2.37%  amounted to illegal state aid. Brussels then ordered Ireland to claim back some €13 billion from the U.S. company. But Dublin appealed against the ruling. The European Court of Justice began to hear the arguments last year, and its decision won’t be known for months.

Apple itself is also contesting the Commission’s decision in court. If Sinn Féin prevails, the iPhone maker would lose the support of Irish government, which may weaken its case.

More generally, Sinn Féin also accused the previous government of having “damaged Ireland’s reputation by opposing moves toward greater transparency in the international tax system.” That is only partly true, because after many years of resistance, Dublin is now participating fully in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development talks known as the BEPS initiative (for Base Erosion Profit Shifting), which some see concluding before the end of the year.

The mood in Dublin was already shifting. And internet giants such as Google GOOGL, +0.57% or Facebook FB, +1.72% had already taken some steps to limit the routing of revenue and profit through Ireland, due to public outrage. The election results could accelerate the trend.

It is worth noting, however, that Sinn Féin has also pledged to keep the Irish corporate tax rate at 12.5%, the lowest in Europe and one of the lowest in the world. This seems to be part of the nationalist agenda of “defending the sovereignty of the Irish tax system,” as the party puts it. Ireland has often been taken to task by the rest of Europe for its refusal to tax profits at a higher rate, and its reluctance to close loopholes.

The situation is slowly evolving. The first reason is that the Irish government has already taken steps to close the most outrageous loopholes. The second reason is that other EU governments have also toned down their rhetoric, because Ireland could be one of the main economic victims of Brexit. The abrupt end of loopholes and other tax schemes may deter big global corporations from investing in the country.

After the scheduled end of the Double Irish, forcing Ireland to hike its corporate tax rate on top of this might be perceived in Dublin as double jeopardy.

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