Does the European commissionâs demand that Apple pay a record-breaking Â£11bn in back taxes to Ireland reflect well on the European Union?
Does it justify the British people having opted for Brexit because of the EUâs high-handedness? Or does it suggest that Britain has decided to quit the EU at the very moment it has shown its teeth by bringing a giant corporation to heel?
Although national newspapers had different answers to those questions, they did appear united in their belief that Apple itself was in the wrong. Struggling old media was delighted with the opportunity to sink its teeth into digital media.
The Times thundered: âAppleâs founder, the late Steve Jobs, once said that individuals are basically ânoble and honourableâ. The same cannot be said of Appleâs tax arrangements.â
Both the Sun and the Daily Mirror believed the deal between Apple and the Irish state was ârotten to the core.â
The Sun thought it âabout time Apple was hit with a monster tax billâ because . âthey and other web giants have got away with murder when it comes to paying their dues.â
In the Daily Mail, its business commentator, Alex Brummer, remarked on the âcorporate arrogance, tax avoidance and cultish secrecy of Appleâ and derided governments for giving âApple and other digital giants a free pass to trample over the tax codes of countries where it makes hundreds of millions in profits.â
The Independent scorned âthe behemoths of technologyâ – the Apples, Amazons and Googles – for depriving governments of hundreds of billions in tax revenues.
But there was no such unity about the EU. The pro-remain Mirror viewed the tax ruling as âa huge prize for the European Union.â It said: âWe congratulate the European commission for fining the bad Apple but there are more companies spoiling this particular barrel.â
No so the Brexit-supporting Telegraph. It viewed the commissionâs decision as an interference in the free market, an example of the EU failing to demonstrate a âcommitment to economic openness.â It continued:
âThe European commissionâs dealings with Apple and Ireland are a textbook example of what is wrong with the EU, both economically and politically.
Economically, a punitive approach to the taxation of highly mobile international corporations is an act of self-harm: such firms can and will relocate to countries that do not seek to milk them for every penny of tax they can.
Politically, it is an affront to democracy that the unelected commission in Brussels should presume to dictate to Irelandâs government what taxes it should levy.â
The Telegraph sees Brexit as a chance to do as Ireland has done by striking deals with corporations and other non-EU economies.
A news story in the fanatically pro-leave Daily Express, headlined âAppleâs Â£11bn tax levy âwill benefit UK after Brexitââ, quoted âexpertsâ who claimed that an EU-free Britain could attract companies bu forging tax deals, âunfettered by Brussels anti-trust rulings.â
The Times, which came out in favour of remain ahead of the EU referendum, was scathing about Appleâs tax deal with the Irish authorities. It must pay what it owes, said the paper, and âIreland must tighten its rules.â
It had little time for the argument that Apple created jobs in lieu of paying tax. Elected governments should worry about jobs, not âtechnology executivesâ.
Conceding that âit will always be difficult to devise a system without loopholesâ, the Times urged developed countries to co-operate and companies to âplay fairâ so that governments can âtake more of what they are owed.â
Brummerâs commentary in the Brexit-supporting Mail was interesting because he praised the EU for its âmost significant drive… to make multinational companies engaged in complex tax avoidance play fair.â He wrote:
âAll this is surprising because generally the EU is a sclerotic and slow-moving organisation. But now the arm that deals with corporate competition has showed itself to have real teeth…
The take-no-prisoners intervention of the EU also offers a great contrast to the softly, softly approach of former chancellor George Osborne and Her Majestyâs Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in their efforts to make Google, Amazon, Starbucks and others pay their fair share of taxes.â
He thought Apple had previously benefitted from a âsoft rideâ in Europe but regarded âthis economic howitzer launched at Appleâ as âa huge step towards a fairer global tax system.â
In essence, the Mailâs Brummer was in unusual accord with the Guardian. Its editorial, âApple, pay your wayâ, also saw the EU decision as a positive step.
Unlike the Telegraph, it argued that Appleâs tax avoidance âoffers the voters of Brexit Britain a grim warning of the ever more dysfunctional capitalism being urged on their government by the free-market fundamentalists around the cabinet table and the lobbyists for investment banks and big business.â
After examining Appleâs global activities, it pointed to the companyâs creation of a âpaperâ head office in Ireland where âprofits allocated to it went untaxedâ and called it âa version of globalisation taken to its deformed, absurd limit.â
As for Appleâs plea about providing jobs in Ireland, the Guardian remarked:
âWhen Apple said yesterday that next to no research work was carried out in its European headquarters of Cork, it was both preparing for a legal appeal and giving the game away about the quality of jobs it has actually created in Ireland.â
And it concluded: âThe lessons here for Brexit Britain are unignorable. For a long time, the City of London has functioned as a tax haven… As she maps out the UKâs future outside the EU at Chequers today, Theresa May is under ever more pressure to go further down that route – to turn all of Britain into some lighttouch special enterprise zone, with favours for industries making extravagant promises.
âThe lesson of Apple in Ireland is that such promises are never as good as they seem.â
The Independent was also worried by âhuge and powerful corporationsâ that âoverwhelm small and feeble nation statesâ in an environment where ââintellectual rightsââ can be relocated on a keyboard stroke.â
It said: âSuch was all too obviously the case with Ireland, virtually bankrupted by the global financial crisis – and Apple, the worldâs richest company by some measures.â
So âthanks to the European commission, which receives little gratitude whatever it does, Europeâs citizens have discovered the full scale of this abuse.â
It contended that âthe EU, by dint of its sheer size as marketplace, has the stature to stand up to the likes of Appleâ and continued:
âIt is painful to think what position HM Treasury will be in in these sorts of scraps, post-Brexit. It could follow the Irish example and leave these enterprises virtually untaxed in return for locating jobs in Britain; in which case our European neighbours would be entitled to object to unfair âtax competitionâ on such a scale.
They might well retaliate by restricting access to the single market still further. We would all be the losers then, except of course for global corporations like Apple, which would find no difficulty in exploiting these arguments to their best advantage.â
The Irish Times saw it somewhat differently: âIreland has always presented itself as having a tax system with a clear legal underpinning, offering certainty to companies.
âRightly or wrongly the judgment casts doubt over the way we taxed at least one major corporation â and this carries with it reputational damage for Ireland.â It said:
âThe damning verdict by the commission on how tax was applied in the Apple case leaves the [Irish] government with little option but to lodge an appeal, given the central importance of foreign direct investment to our economy…
The Irish side is insistent that the commission has erred legally, as is Apple. Ireland will also claim an infringement on our tax sovereignty.â
But, like UK newspapers, it understood that âbig US companies have used the interplay of European and US tax laws to pay very little tax on profits earned in European markets… There is no doubt that this needs to change and that the amounts paid by many of these companies has been indefensibly low.â
I applaud the Irish Timesâs columnist, Fintan OâToole, for arguing that Ireland should take the money and then use it âproperly and rigorouslyâ in order to make âan epoch-making, transformational interventionâ for the good of the Irish people.