There have been five US multinationals caught up in “sweetheart tax deal” inquiries launched by competition officials in Brussels over the last two and a half years: Apple, Amazon, Starbucks, Fiat Chrysler and McDonald’s.
All angrily denied receiving any special treatment. They have all done something else too: they have strengthened operations in the UK.
Starbucks has switched head office activities from the Netherlands and Fiat Chrysler, created by a merger in 2014, has made London its headquarters. Meanwhile, Amazon and Apple have unveiled plans for gleaming new offices in the UK capital.
On Thursday, McDonald’s joined in. It is unwinding a controversial $1bn (£800m) royalties-earning business in Luxembourg, replacing it with a new European holding company run out of the UK.
The message is clear. If you’re a multinational feeling the heat from tax officials in mainland Europe, Britain can offer a port in the storm.
Google, the bete noir of many European tax justice campaigners, has felt the allure too. After a pleasing resolution of a longstanding dispute over its UK taxes in January, the online search group recently resurrected plans for vast new offices in London.
While tax inspectors in Italy, France, Spain and Germany launch raids on the offices of many of the world’s largest multinationals, in Britain there is no such unpleasantness. Big businesses appreciate being greeted instead by someone from HMRC called a “customer relationship manager”.
Like a consummate hotelier, Britain calculates that by showing just a little more hospitality than its European neighbours, all the guests will want to stay here instead.
This is not to say experts are wrong when they predict many multinationals will freeze UK investment, or pull out altogether, as the country prepares to exit the European Union.
That may be true for many businesses in industries heavily dependent on pan-European regulation. But for others, an independent Britain is an appealing prospect.
Ultimately, all major international investment decisions boil down to a simple bargain. What can a host country do for a multinational, and what must the multinational offer in return?
As it slides towards Brexit, Britain is less equipped than ever to impose tough terms on the world’s largest corporations. It may be attracting some big-name investors, but at what cost to the British taxpayer?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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