Official Journal of the European Union

C 112/60

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee: Review and update of VAT strategy priorities’

(COM(2003) 614 final)

(2004/C 112/18)

On 20 October 2003 the Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the above-mentioned communication.

The Section for Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 11 March 2004. The rapporteur was Mr Pezzini.

At its 407th plenary session (meeting of 31 March 2004), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 101 votes to 0 with 1 abstention.

1.   Introduction


At the time of adoption of the first and second Community Directives on value added tax, the Community had undertaken, among other things, to take steps to set up a joint system in the context of intra-Community trade which would provide in the medium term for abolition of taxes on imports as well as de-taxation of exports. This commitment was based on the declared intention to create a system which would be capable of functioning both within the single market and in each individual Member State.


The Commission drew up the proposals for setting up such a system in 1987, as part of the initiatives to prepare for the completion of the single market planned for 1993.


The system envisaged in particular the setting up of a harmonised structure based on two categories of rates, the approximation - within a predetermined range - of the rates applying in the individual Member States, and a compensation mechanism for reallocating tax revenues among the various financial administrations.


Once it realised that it was impossible to adopt the Commission's proposals before January 1993, the Council decided as early as 1989 to apply a transitional system which would make it possible on the one hand to abolish all forms of frontier controls and on the other to ensure that the tax was levied in the Member State of destination of the goods and/or service.


At the same time the Council reaffirmed its wish to set up a definitive system based on the principle of taxing goods and services in the Member State of origin, stipulating 31 December 1996 as the time limit for achieving that objective.


In accordance with the wishes expressed by the Council, the Commission therefore drew up a structured action programme to achieve a system based on modernisation and uniform application of the existing system, as well as on the introduction of gradual changes intended to encourage the process of transition towards a definitive common system of value added tax.


Nonetheless, given the continuing differences of view within the individual states on the desirability of setting in train a genuine process of reforming the VAT system, the results achieved remained modest. Indeed, to guarantee the neutrality of the tax with regard to the normal process of competition between firms, it would have been necessary to achieve, as the Commission repeatedly proposed, a certain degree of harmonisation both of rates and of taxation mechanisms.


In June 2000 the Commission presented a communication to the Council and the European Parliament in which it set out the initiatives to be taken to define a sustainable strategy for perfecting the common system of value added tax. The guiding principles of this programme were in particular the simplification and modernisation of the system of rules, the adoption of measures designed to ensure more uniform application of the existing provisions, and greater cooperation between the tax administrations of the Member States.


The transitional system, albeit modified in various ways, is still in force and there is no likelihood of its replacement in the immediate future, although according to a widely held view it has significant imperfections which are such as to prejudice the proper functioning of the single market. Three years having passed since the launching of the programme in 2000, the Commission, in a communication to the Council, the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee, is now proposing a review and update of VAT strategy priorities, not least in the light of initiatives taken in the meantime.

2.   General comments


Over the years the Committee has several times had occasion to confirm its unconditional support for establishing a definitive common system of value added tax, and has repeatedly called on the Member States to adopt the appropriate strategies to that end. Similarly, it has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the many imperfections of the present provisional system, and has called for the necessary modernisation measures to be adopted.


As early as 1988 the Committee pointed out the anachronistic nature of a system in which transactions between parties operating within the same market, albeit residing in different Member States, were defined as imports and exports – terms which could at most be suitable for transactions with trading partners operating outside that market.


Moreover, the opinion is widely held that the current system is in general inadequate, and in the final analysis even hinders the operation of the single market.


Although it is of course desirable to move on quickly to a definitive system, the Committee is nonetheless aware that at the present stage, in which the Council expresses the demands of the national governments rather than Community interests, the only feasible objective is an action programme based on modernisation of the existing system and the adoption of measures to assist the transition to a definitive VAT system.


The Committee appreciates the fact that the Commission does not question the idea of a definitive system, and it shares its cautious attitude of confining itself to pursuing at present a strategy of gradual modernisation of the existing system. In that context it is pleased with the results finally achieved in terms of simplification and more uniform application of the system.


The Committee particularly welcomes the adoption of the initiatives taken by the Commission to implement the action programme launched in 2000.


In particular, it is pleased with the adoption of Directive 2000/65/EC, which abolished the institution of tax representation with effect from 1 January 2003 (1), Directive 2002/38/EC on services provided electronically (2), Directive 2003/92/EC on the rules on the place of supply of electricity and gas (3), Directive 2001/44/EC on mutual assistance on recovering credits (4), and the adoption of Regulation (EC) 1798/2003 on administrative cooperation in the field of VAT (5). It would also wish to point out that in the context of initiatives intended to encourage closer cooperation among the tax authorities of the Member States in fighting tax fraud, the adoption of the Fiscalis programme is of particular importance.


While appreciating the work carried out by the Commission, the EESC would point out that at times the Commission's work has seemed, because of continuing positions in the Council which seek to preserve national interests, to show a certain lack of coherence and lack of clarity in setting priorities.


The Committee feels that the proposed strategy should give top priority to the adoption of measures designed to guarantee the uniform application at Community level of the common system of VAT. The EESC has already expressed the view elsewhere that it would be desirable to transform the VAT committee into a regulatory committee with the task of assisting the Commission in adopting measures to implement existing provisions, along the lines set out in the draft directive of 1997 and in the Commission's Communication of June 2000 on the strategy to improve the operation of the VAT system in the internal market (6).

3.   Initiatives in the process of being adopted

3.1   Simplification of the system


The Committee shares the view that simplification of the tax obligations imposed on operators by the current system should constitute a priority of the Commission's strategy, not least to meet consumers' requirements.


In this context the Committee hopes that work can resume as soon as possible on a draft directive providing for the cross-frontier deduction of tax already paid, in place of the system provided for by the 8th VAT Directive. It also welcomes in particular the suggestion made by the Council presidency to use to this end a system of information exchange and redistribution of the tax among Member States similar to that envisaged by the directive on electronic trade.


Moreover, the Committee appreciates the Commission's initiative of launching a public consultation on the simplification and harmonisation of tax obligations with regard to VAT. In this context it hopes that measures will be adopted to differentiate the system for meeting obligations according to the size of the commercial operators involved. From the 1990s onwards the Commission has collated a number of good practices adopted by the Member States to streamline the way micro-enterprises and small enterprises meet the obligations placed on them by the VAT rules (7). Moderating the legal obligations would also have the effect of containing the problem of undeclared work.


The EESC appreciates and supports the work being done by the Commission to encourage the creation of a ‘one-stop shop’ system whereby firms registered in more than one Member State can meet their EU-level VAT obligations in the country where they are established (8).

3.2   Harmonisation and modernisation of the system


The EESC shares the view that it would be desirable to adopt measures to prevent the occurrence of double taxation. On this point it endorses the Commission's approach of setting up instruments to solve individual cases of double taxation on the model of those provided for in the international conventions applicable to direct taxation.


In the context of the initiatives to be taken to ensure a higher level of harmonisation of the common system, the recasting of the 6th Community Directive on VAT appears to be particularly important. Having been subjected to numerous changes, it has become in the course of time a complex set of rules which is not easy to consult. Moreover, technological progress, new commercial practices and privatisation and liberalisation processes which have affected large sections of the EU economy necessitate a review of those specific provisions of this directive which no longer correspond to the reality of economic transactions.


Moreover, the Committee agrees with the Commission on the need for an early rationalisation of the current system of derogations by eliminating those which distort competition and generalising those which are more effective.

4.   Guidelines for the future

4.1   Revision of the rules on the place where services are taxed


The Commission has launched a public consultation to assess the need for amendment of the rules on the place where services are taxed. The consultation is based on a document drawn up by the Commission's Directorate-General for Taxation and the Customs Union, which assesses the desirability of changing from the principle of taxation in the country of origin to that of taxation in the country of destination, or regarding as the place of taxation of services no longer the place where the service provider resides but the place where the beneficiary of the service resides (9).


The rule of taxation in the place of residence of the service provider has worked up until now; however, the proliferation of cross-border services is likely to create complex administrative situations and distortions of competition, giving rise to cases of double taxation or non-taxation of international services. The problem has been brought to light particularly by services linked to e-commerce.


The amendment therefore provides that, in the same way as for voluntary bankruptcy, for the provision of services the person liable for VAT would be the beneficiary (where a VAT-taxable dealer is concerned) and not the provider. The amendment would make it possible, among other things, to reduce the administrative load on operators, because the service provider would no longer be obliged, as at present, to register at the border when he carries out taxable operations in a state different to his state of residence. Moreover, to the extent that the changes are harmonised with rules applicable in third countries which have their own taxes on consumption, the result would be to reduce the risks of double taxation or non-taxation of international services.


The Committee agrees there is a need for revision of the rules on the place of taxation of services along the lines set out above, but thinks it desirable to extend the review to all services intended for final consumers. It also agrees with the Commission that in this context it would be desirable to extend to services the system of information exchange used by the tax authorities of the Member States (VIES system).

4.2   Combating tax fraud


The Committee agrees that combating VAT fraud should constitute one of the priorities for Commission action. Indeed, as well as having a significant financial impact, fraud involves distortions of competition which benefit the less honest operators.


The Committee is aware that the present system is highly vulnerable to fraud. Cases of fraud are encouraged by the possibility of combining operations to which VAT is applicable with operations for which actual payment of VAT is not required. Nonetheless, the Committee takes the view that fraud should be combated not so much by introducing amendments to the current system, but in the context of the existing rules. The results of a strategy based on introducing substantial modifications to the current system would be uncertain, while the direct and indirect administrative costs of such a strategy would be enormous.


Thus the EESC suggests making the best use of existing instruments for administrative cooperation between states, as well as providing further instruments. In this context, moreover, considerable progress has already been made: Regulation 1798/2003 lays down particularly effective rules on this which should facilitate contacts among the national administrations; while adoption of the Fiscalis programme will, for its part, make possible closer cooperation between states in combating tax fraud, through the use of advanced electronic systems for the exchange of information. Finally, the Committee takes the view that an important contribution to combating the most excessive forms of tax evasion could be made by developing specific strategies at national level. In this context it particularly welcomes the initiative which has emerged in the SCAC to draw up a guide to some of the practices adopted by individual national administrations in combating tax fraud.

5.   Conclusions


The Committee reiterates the view that the many serious limitations of the current system can be eliminated only by introducing a new definitive system. Nonetheless, it is aware that at present such an objective cannot be achieved in the short term. It therefore appreciates the Commission's realism in pursuing a strategy of gradual improvement of the existing system.


The EESC urges the Member States and the Council to abandon their current positions in favour of policies with a real chance of encouraging the development of the internal market to the benefit of firms but above all of consumers. It points out that, given the single currency, Europe can no longer tolerate the deficiencies of the current transitional system for value added tax. In particular, it hopes that in the context of the institutional reform set in train by the European Convention the Commission will be given suitable powers to implement European legislation, and that the unanimity rule will be abandoned for types of taxation which affect competition on the internal market. Any discussions on revising the rules for taking decisions on taxation in the EU should also include VAT matters.


However, given the current climate of reluctance to adopt a common VAT system of a definitive nature, and given the need for modernisation of the transitional system, the EESC agrees that the central elements of the improvement should be simplification, modernisation of current rules, more uniform application of those rules and greater administrative cooperation among the tax authorities of the Member States.


The Committee also shares the Commission's view that modernisation and simplification on the one hand, and cooperation and fraud prevention on the other, are part of a single package and must therefore proceed in parallel.

The EESC therefore appreciates the initiatives taken by the Commission, as well as the other initiatives currently under consideration to implement the 2000 strategy. The Committee endorses in particular the revision of the rules on the place of taxation of services along the lines set out in the communication in question, and takes the view that fraud should be combated in the framework of current law. Finally, it hopes that the work on the draft directive to change the status of the VAT committee can be resumed as soon as possible.

Brussels, 31 March 2004

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee


(1)  EESC opinion: OJ C 409 of 30.12.1998, page 10

(2)  EESC opinion: OJ C 116 of 20.4.2001, page 59

(3)  EESC opinion: OJ C 133 of 6.6.2003, page 58

(4)  EESC opinion: OJ C 101 of 12.4.1999, page 26

(5)  EESC opinion: OJ C 80 of 3.4.2002, page 76

(6)  EESC opinions: OJ C 19 of 21.1.1998, page 56, and OJ C 32 of 5.2.2004, page 120

(7)  See the EESC's own-initiative opinion on the European Charter for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (OJ C 204 of 18.7.2000, p. 57, points 1.6 – 12), the EESC opinion on the Proposal for a Council decision on a multi-annual programme for enterprises and entrepreneurship (2001/2005) (OJ C 116 of 20.4.2001) and the EESC opinion on The role of micro and small enterprises in Europe's economic life and productive fabric (OJ C 220 of 16.9.2003, p. 50, point 3.5).

(8)  Cf. point 3.1.2 of COM(2003) 614 of 20.10.2003.

(9)  The summary report on the results of the consultation carried out by DG TAXUD (VAT – place of taxation for the provision of services (TAXUD/C3/2357)) which inspired the document COM(2003) 822 final, expressed the view that the overwhelming majority of the 57 organisations interviewed are in favour of the approach indicated above.