In Talks on Taxing Tech Companies, It’s America Versus the World

PARIS — The Trump administration and leaders of other wealthy nations remain at odds over how to tax technology companies and other businesses that operate online, negotiators confirmed on Friday, an impasse that threatens to inflame global trade tensions if not resolved by year’s end.

Some 130 countries are engaged in the discussions through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that are attempting to set new rules for taxing multinational companies in an increasingly digital economy.

Those rules could include international standards for which countries can tax activity that occurs online, and to what degree. They could also establish what would be an effective global minimum tax for multinational companies that shift their profits to low-tax havens like Ireland and Bermuda.

A meeting of countries in Paris this week yielded progress toward an agreement and set a deadline of the end of this year to find one.

It also delayed the most contentious issue in the talks — a demand by American officials that some companies be allowed to choose whether or not to be taxed under any new international system — until the end of the negotiations. “Resolution of this issue is crucial to reaching consensus,” negotiators said in a consensus statement released on Friday.

The talks carry high financial stakes for large companies that operate in multiple countries.

Countries like France and the United Kingdom have approved so-called digital taxes that hit large tech companies like Google and Amazon that have large online footprints in their countries but face little tax liability, because their physical operations are concentrated elsewhere. The United States has objected to those taxes as discriminatory against American firms, which would be among those most affected, and it has threatened tariffs on imports from countries that impose the taxes.

American and French officials reached a temporary truce on the issue in Davos, Switzerland, last week, with the Trump administration pausing its tariff threat while the French delay collecting the digital tax this year while the sides seek a deal through the O.E.C.D.

Such a deal still appears difficult — in large part because of the Trump administration’s insistence that some companies be allowed to choose whether or not to subject themselves to the new tax standards. That could be an especially important option for non-technology multinationals, like consumer products companies, who have grown increasingly concerned that they could be subject to new taxation under any agreement.

Pascal Saint-Amans, director of the O.E.C.D. Centre for Tax Policy and Administration, told reporters on Friday that for “a very large spectrum of countries,” the American position would make any agreement difficult or impossible. Negotiators agreed to delay any discussion on that question until all other issues surrounding digital taxation had been resolved.

Still, Mr. Saint-Amans said, there is “strong political commitment to work together” among negotiators and he hopes that more progress can be made by July, when negotiators will meet in Berlin.

Mr. Saint-Amans said the process was moving fast “because what is at stake is a massive trade war” — particularly between France and the United States.

Angel Gurría, the O.E.C.D.’s secretary-general, said in a news release that negotiators still faced a daunting task bridging “critical policy differences,” but that a collapse of the talks risked economic calamity.

“We are convinced that failure to reach agreement would greatly increase the risk that countries will act unilaterally” to impose taxes and tariffs, Mr. Gurría said, “with negative consequences on an already fragile global economy.”

Liz Alderman reported from Paris, and Jim Tankersley from Washington.

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