By Luke Baker
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain, France and Germany called for stricter rules to stop companies such as Google, Apple and Amazon aggressively avoiding taxes in austerity bitten Europe, while acknowledging they had done nothing unlawful.
At a summit to discuss energy and tax policy, the leaders of the three largest EU countries took the opportunity at news conferences to lament the impact of corporate tax avoidance, following several cases involving U.S. firms.
The issue has hit a nerve in Europe where many countries are cutting back on social spending and squeezing workers in order to reduce national deficits and debt.
Most recently a U.S. Senate report found that Apple Inc had paid just 2 percent tax on $74 billion in overseas income, largely by exploiting a loophole in Ireland's tax code.
"We cannot accept that a certain number of companies can put themselves in situations where they escape paying taxes in ways that are legal," French President Francois Hollande said.
"We must coordinate at a European level, harmonize our rules and come up with strategies to stop this."
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has put tax at the top of the agenda for a meeting of the G8 in Ireland next month, was equally clear about the need for coordination steps.
"There is a real chance of seeing the sort of international action that we need to fix this problem," he said. "You can't do it on your own, you have to have that international action and that is why I think today has been a bit of a breakthrough."
France and Britain in particular have grown concerned by the sheer scale of the legal tax schemes.
Monday's U.S. Senate report on Apple Inc followed reports that the British unit of Amazon paid just $3.7 million tax on 2012 sales of $6.5 billion, and similar revelations concerning the UK operations of Google and Starbucks.
In all, officials estimate that EU governments miss out on around 1 trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) a year through the legal tax avoidance schemes employed by such companies and via illegal tax evasion.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who avoided commenting on the issue ahead of the summit, expressed her frustration that existing laws were not sufficient to capture taxes fully.
"We will work towards ensuring companies have to pay more where they are based," she told reporters, saying that new rules would affect big companies most, although it many cases companies are basing themselves in low- or no-tax jurisdictions.
HARD TO CLOSE LOOPHOLES
While there is common consent among EU leaders that action needs to be taken to close loopholes and level the playing field on tax policy, little has been done on the issues despite regular lobbying by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and other international organizations.
In a report in March last year, the OECD, a club for wealthy countries, set out in detail how companies were using "hybrid mismatch arrangements" to avoid paying taxes, the very technique that Apple is alleged to have used in its tax planning.
"We have got to make sure as we set those tax rates that companies pay taxes, and that means international collaboration, the sharing of tax information," British Prime Minister David Cameron said as he arrived at the summit.
But officials have dismissed the possibility of immediate steps to close loopholes or any targeting of companies, saying it is primarily up to EU member states to craft the necessary legislation, and to work through wider international forums such as the OECD, G8 and G20 to make progress and close the net.
Eversheds, a global law firm dealing with tax issues, said that while recent cases involving high-profile U.S. companies had pushed the tax issue to the top of the global agenda, it could not be tackled with any quick or immediate steps.
"While the issues deserves this top-level attention, the public should not expect any game-changing developments, and indeed it would be wrong for the EU to try to tackle the issue on its own," said Ben Jones, a tax expert at the firm.
"Uncoordinated attempts by individual countries or blocs of countries to tackle the issue may actually create more tax 'loopholes' or have a detrimental impact on businesses that do not engage in aggressive tax planning."
France has already shown its willingness to take on major U.S. companies, with authorities raiding Google in a 2011 investigation into whether its Paris office conducts sales work. The company was asked to pay 1.7 billion euros in back taxes.
A similar issue has arisen with how Google operates in Britain, with questions raised about whether its sales staff are based abroad, as the company maintains, or in the country, which would create a liability to UK tax.
Google says it follows tax rules everywhere it operates and that references to selling in job ads for British-based staff reflect the fact that it likes people with a sales skills.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft and Peter Griffiths in Brussels, Michelle Martin in Berlin and Mark John in Paris; Editing by Will Waterman and Janet McBride)