G8 to tackle tax and trade, but Syria may steal focus

Friday 14 June 2013 11.01
Although the G8 is primarily an economic forum, the question of Syria may end up in the headlines this year
Although the G8 is primarily an economic forum, the question of Syria may end up in the headlines this year

As host of this year's G8 summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron will want leaders to concentrate on trade, tax and transparency at the two-day meeting in Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh.

Most of the G8 countries are grappling with the double problem of slow economic growth coupled with soaring government debt.

The UK wants to use its chairmanship to push for growth through free trade agreements and to boost governments' income by decreasing the scope for tax evasion and avoidance.

Mr Cameron wrote in a pre-summit article in the Wall Street Journal that the UK stands to gain £10bn (€11.7bn) per year if the EU reaches a free trade agreement with the US.

Mr Cameron is hoping that negotiations on the agreement can be launched when US President Barack Obama visits Northern Ireland for the summit.

Rebutting French calls for a more limited agreement, Mr Cameron insists that everything must be on the table.

He believes that products that have been approved for entering the market on one side of the Atlantic must be able to be sold immediately on the other side as well.

In addition to the bilateral deal, Mr Cameron points out that the world economy at large stands to gain more than $1 trillion if G8 countries complete the free trade agreements they are currently negotiating.

Within the G8, Canada is in the final stages of talks on a free trade agreement with the EU.

However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has indicated that it is unlikely that the deal can be signed while Mr Harper is in Europe for the Lough Erne summit.

Much of the media attention around the summit will focus on tax planning and tax evasion in the wake of a string of allegations involving major US companies such as Google and Apple paying little or no corporation tax in the countries where they operate.

Apple recently confirmed that two of its Irish subsidiaries pay around 2% in tax, however the company rejected claims that its Irish operation was used to avoid liabilities in the US.

Mr Cameron is under domestic political pressure for action on tax avoidance. A Westminster parliamentary committee has held widely publicised hearings on Google's arrangements to avoid paying corporation tax in the UK.

Mr Cameron has pushed the tax avoidance agenda at the EU level, where he has put forward proposals for reform of global tax rules, information exchange and transparency.

Mr Cameron has also called on Britain's overseas territories to sign an international agreement on tackling tax evasion in order to "get our own houses in order".

Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and the Cayman Islands have already indicated they will join the OECD's multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which provides for automatic information exchange and recovery of foreign tax claims.

Senior ministers from ten dependencies have been invited to London for talks on tax evasion on the eve of the G8 summit.

Among the territories invited to the conference is Bermuda, which has been implicated as the final destination of Google's income from its UK activities.

Bermuda's Premier Craig Cannonier has said the territory is not ready to commit to the convention.

Tensions over Syria may steal focus

Although the G8 is primarily an economic forum, the question of Syria may end up in the headlines this year because of differences between President Bashar al-Assad's ally Russia and most of the other G8 governments, which are sympathetic to the rebels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is Mr Assad's most influential ally, and tensions are likely to be high, particularly as US President Barack Obama this week authorised sending weapons to Syrian rebels for the first time.

Earlier this month Britain and France forced the European Union to lift an embargo that had blocked weapons for the rebels.

However, a senior Russian politician has said that information on the use of chemical weapons by Mr Assad's forces was fabricated.

Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign policy committee in the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, suggested the US would use it to justify intervention in the conflict.

"Information about the use by Assad of chemical weapons has been fabricated in the same place as the lies about [Saddam] Hussein's weapons of mass destruction," Mr Pushkov said on Twitter.

"Obama is taking the same path as George Bush," he added.

In their meeting in April, G8 foreign ministers failed to bridge their differences on Syria.

In May, Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a joint call for a Syrian peace conference to be held in Geneva.

Prospects for the conference being held in the near future have deteriorated in recent weeks, as the Syrian government's advances have weakened both sides' interest in negotiating a peaceful solution to the conflict.

A unanimous call for a negotiated settlement from the G8 at Lough Erne could increase pressure for the warring sides to attend talks in Geneva.

More importantly, the bilateral meetings around the event are an opportunity for leaders to bridge their differences.