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How the Netherlands Built One of the World’s Worst Tax Havens

And How to Shut It Down

Tourists pose for photos outside the Rijksmuseum in central Amsterdam, Netherlands, December 2017 Yves Herman / Reuters

Dutch officials really don’t like it when someone calls their country a tax haven.

In 2009, the Obama administration did just that, naming the Netherlands as one of a number of countries where scores of major American firms had established subsidiaries in order to avoid paying U.S. taxes. In a press briefing, the White House also noted that, taken together with Bermuda and Ireland, the Netherlands claimed nearly a third of all foreign profits reported in 2003 by U.S. corporations.

These statements provoked outrage in the Netherlands and a protest from the Dutch ambassador in Washington. “We’re not happy,” said Jan Kees de Jager, the Netherlands’ finance secretary. “I expect there’ll be a clarification and we’ll not end up on lists like this in future, between Bermuda and Ireland.” After all, the Dutch response seemed to suggest, everyone knows that those places—and others, such as the Cayman Islands and Switzerland—are tax havens, and to lump the Netherlands in with them was apparently a profound insult.

Shortly afterward, de Jager claimed that the Americans had agreed to stop describing the Netherlands in those terms. Doing so might have been justified by a desire to placate an aggrieved U.S. ally. But the truth is that the Netherlands absolutely belonged on a list of major tax havens—and still does, today.

In 2017, foreign direct investment in the Netherlands totaled $5.2 trillion. But the vast majority of that money wasn’t invested at all: only $836 billion actually entered the Dutch economy. The other $4.3 trillion went into shell companies or subsidiaries set up to avoid paying taxes elsewhere. As such numbers should indicate, this isn’t the work of a few shady players trying to hide their illicit gains: some of the biggest players in the global economy are in on the game. Google and IBM are among the many U.S. companies that have established operations in the Netherlands in order to reduce their tax bills back home. Most

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