Europe has been bent in the past few years on austerity, cutting pensions, wages and public sector jobs to rein in deficits. But there are signs that the problem also lies in the revenue side as a result of tax evasion.
For years, large companies have indulged in so-called financial engineering, using tax havens to pay the minimum amount possible. And, according to figures released Thursday by the European Union's statistics office Eurostat, Spain loses around 15 billion euros a year in potential value-added tax revenues because of evasion, as well as bankruptcies and statistical errors, among other factors. In the period 2008-2011, the loss in Spain was estimated at 65 billion euros.
The European Commission attributes the problem to the failings of tax systems containing holes which allow the evasion of taxes. It argues that if these failings are rectified, a further rise in value-added tax rates to tackle deficits could be avoided. The standard value-added tax rate in Spain now stands at 21 percent, while the reduced rate is at 10 percent.
Spain is not the worst example of a European country failing to benefit from its potential to raise VAT revenue. The 2011 shortfall in Italy is estimated at 36 billion euros, at 32 billion in France, 27 billion in Germany and 19 billion in Britain. However, in relation to the size of their economies, the problem is greatest in Romania, Greece, Latvia and Lithuania. The countries with the lowest loss of potential VAT revenues in terms of a percentage of their GDP are Sweden, Malta, the Netherlands, Ireland and Slovenia.
The amount of VAT that is slipping through the net is unacceptable"
According to the European Commission, losses in VAT revenues have increased significantly since 2008 as a result of the economic crisis, particularly in Spain, Greece, Latvia, Ireland and Portugal. By contrast, the situation in Sweden, Poland, Malta, Bulgaria and Czech Republic has improved over the same period.
The total loss of VAT revenue in 2011 for the European Union as a whole was close to 200 billion euros, equivalent to 2 percent of the bloc's GDP.
The European commissioner for taxation, customs, statistics, auditing and anti-fraud, Algirdas Semetas, described the figure as alarming. "The amount of VAT that is slipping through the net is unacceptable; particularly given the impact such sums could have in bolstering public finances," Semetas said.
The Commission said member countries needed to take a "tougher stance" against evasion. It also recommended simplifying tax payment systems to make it easier for taxpayers to comply with the rules.
As a result, the EU's executive body is promoting new measures to facilitate electronic invoicing and special provisions for small businesses. It also plans to propose a standard VAT declaration form for the entire EU. From the start of 2015, a so-called one-stop shop will also come into force for e-services and telecoms businesses, which will promote more compliance by greatly simplifying VAT procedures for these businesses and enabling them to file a single VAT return for their activities across the EU.
"We know the problem; we have identified solutions to it, and now it's time for member states to act," Semetas said. "[Thursday's] figures will serve as a baseline to assess their progress in improving VAT compliance in the years ahead."