France next on the list to be teased with Trump’s tariffs

The United States Trade Representative (USTR) has opened an investigation into France’s digital sales tax, a move which could lead to the European nation facing trade tariffs.

The digital sales tax in France has been viewed as a means to force internet companies to play fair. The creative accounting practices of these companies has ensured nominal tax has been paid to various European states, and France has had enough. The proposed tax has passed through the lower parliamentary house, the National Assembly, and is expected to get the final thumbs-up today from the Senate.

As a result, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has announced the launch of an investigation under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 of the Digital Services Tax (DST) into the French government. This is the very same tool used by the Trump administration to justify the introduction of tariffs against China due to the alleged theft of IP.

“The United States is very concerned that the digital services tax which is expected to pass the French Senate tomorrow unfairly targets American companies,” said Lighthizer.

“The President has directed that we investigate the effects of this legislation and determine whether it is discriminatory or unreasonable and burdens or restricts United States commerce.”

What is worth noting is that while many US companies might find themselves paying more tax, this is not necessarily a move to raid the US economy. This tax has been directed towards all digital companies who abuse the international tax system to the detriment of the French government and society irrelevant as to their nationality, it just so happens the US dominates the internet industry.

Many will view the French move as a gallant effort to hold the internet economy accountable, though it seems the US does not feel the same way; its own economy and society does of course benefit from the tax skulduggery.

The suggestion of the US imposing tariffs on the US comes two days after President Trump declared Indian tariffs on US goods should be a thing of the past.

The tax itself has been in the pipeline for some time, as European nations have become increasingly frustrated by the taxation strategies of the digital economy. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have been shifting profits freely throughout the world to ensure lower taxation rates are paid. This move from France, to impose a 3% sales tax on revenues realised within its borders, seems like an effective counter-punch.

What is worth noting is it is not just the US firms who are abusing this taxation system. Sweden’s Spotify is another which has played the system well. In the UK, as an example, the company reported revenues of £444 million over the course of 2017 but paid £891,425 in tax as it only reported advertising revenues in the country. Revenues associated with the ‘Premium’ subscription product were moved to Sweden where it could pay less tax.

France is not alone with its frustrations either. The UK is another nation which is considering its own digital tax reforms, while the European Commission attempted to pass bloc-wide rules recently. These rules were blocked by the likes of Ireland and Luxembourg, two countries who benefit significantly from the fleecing of other nations.

Now onto the US response. Section 301 and related provisions of the Trade Act offer the USTR the opportunity to investigate what it or the White House deem as a foreign country’s unfair trade practices. There will be a public consultation and lobby efforts from Silicon Valley and should the USTR conclude France is unfairly persecuting US business, tariffs could be directed towards imported cheese and garlic.

Tariffs are a popular weapon for Trump and the White House hacketmen on the international trade scene, as it is becoming increasingly common for US diplomats to huff and puff, while banging their chest and showing off their biceps when things don’t go their way.

Unfortunately, the US doesn’t really have a leg to stand on here, though the presence of logic will not persuade the hawks from their flightpath. Internet companies, all over the world for that matter, are taking advantage of a dated taxation system which allows them to grow bank accounts without recontributing to the country which has fuelled this prosperity. There is little which can be said to counter this position.

Interestingly enough, the move could spark wider tensions. The relationship between the White House and the European Union is already stressed and targeting a single member state might not be received well by the bloc. The US feels targeting a single member state is legitimate, though there might well be a bigger conversation to be had in Brussels.

With the clouds of tariffs already lurking above the European automotive industry, the US might find itself with another trade disagreement on its hands before too long.