In a sweltering, politically incorrect scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones – tired of the boastful swordsmanship of an Arab adversary – nonchalantly draws his pistol and shoots him dead. This could be a metaphor for the last hundred years: with a few exceptions, when the Americans have put their minds to it, their primacy in all things has meant they have the last word. And they know it.
So, I admit to remaining a little nervous about the impossibly named MULTILATERAL CONVENTION TO IMPLEMENT TAX TREATY RELATED MEASURES TO PREVENT BASE EROSION AND PROFIT SHIFTING which, had the Americans been among the 68 nations that signed it in Paris last month, would probably now be known for short by its acronym MCTITTRMTPBEAPS. But America was not among those 68 nations, so it is known affectionately as The Multilateral Instrument. In tax terms it is a miracle up there with splitting the Red Sea and walking on water but, to paraphrase Michael Jordan: ‘There is no i in team, but there is in America’ – the Americans are just not good at playing a team game.
The Multilateral Instrument is the most unlikely victor in the mammoth OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting enterprise of the last four years. In order to ensure a fairer playing field in the world of international tax, there was the daunting prospect of the need to adjust thousands of bilateral double taxation treaties – Mission Impossible. Then somebody – probably the sort of person whose optimism leads them to walk confidently over the edge of a cliff – came up with the idea of getting all the countries to agree to a super-agreement that would take precedence over the myriad treaties. Back in 2013, any sane human being would have said it was a case of Taxworld meeting Disneyworld.
But, by ingeniously including Get Out of Jail Free cards whereby member states could publicly opt out of individual provisions of the Multilateral Instrument, everybody who was anybody (apart from the biggestbody) was able to cherry-pick and sign up. As a result, within a couple of years, the game will be up for such fun pastimes as hybrid mismatches, treaty abuse, and permanent establishment avoidance. Against that will be improved dispute resolution, as well as the prospect of arbitration in intractable situations. Tax heaven (as opposed to haven) on earth.
So far, other than the United States, the only other G20 nations not to sign up are Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the Saudi Arabians are still smarting from Harrison Ford’s one-upmanship nearly four decades ago, and are hanging out for the prospect of being the last nation standing. I can’t wait for the new Indiana Jones movie scheduled for 2020.