The Colombia UK tax treaty: 80 years in the making

Hearson, M, 2017. The UK-Colombia Tax Treaty: 80 Years in the Making. British Tax Review (4):375-384.

Today at 2.30pm, the UK parliament’s Third Delegated Legislation Committee will debate tax treaties with Lesotho and Colombia. It will be interesting to see how much debate really takes place, a matter on which I’ve commented before once or twice.

The hearing gives me a chance to plug my article in the British Tax Review last year [pdf], which traced the UK’s attempts to obtain a tax treaty with Colombia over 80 years. Its overtures were frequently rejected, at first because Colombia was not interested in tax treaties, then because it was bound by the terms of the Andean pact, and finally because it could not agree on terms with the UK, especially over technical service fees, an area where the UK position has changed. Since the article was published I had the chance to speak with a Colombian tax official, who told me that Colombia’s change of heart on technical service fees is a change of view about tax policy, rather than a concession forced by OECD membership, as I speculated in the article. Of course, the two developments might not be totally independent.

Here is how the article concludes:

The demands of OECD membership, combined with the unusually liberal use of MFN clauses during an era of less-than-strategic negotiation, seem to have backed a country once insistent on a “red line” over technical service fees, and before that sceptical of accepting the limitations on its taxing rights that come with a tax treaty, into a corner. Having been constrained in its negotiating position by the pro-source taxation stance of the Andean community, Colombia now finds itself pulled in the other direction by the OECD. Is this further proof that the world is moving inexorably towards an OECD-type tax system? The gradual but steady expansion of the OECD, given a fillip most recently by the announcement that Brazil would begin accession talks, might lead us to such a conclusion. In contrast, however, the continued expansion in the use of the technical service fees Article by developing countries, together with its imminent introduction into the UN Model Treaty, point towards a growing divide between states on this topic.

The long history of negotiations between the UK and Colombia perhaps demonstrates more than anything the extent to which the tax treatment of international transactions today is a product of historically specific events. Each side’s positions changed radically over time, from a refusal to accept each other’s terms to a willingness to concede them outright. The UK’s constant enthusiasm for a treaty with Colombia stands in contrast with the latter’s oscillation between hot and cold. If Colombia turns cold again, however, it will be left with a fossilised relic of its negotiating position in 2016. Given the rarity with which tax treaties are terminated or their terms substantially renegotiated, treaty networks are collections of these fossils. Hence Colombia is stuck with its MFN [most favoured nation] clauses, regrettable outcomes of its negotiating spree in the 2000s. The biggest irony, however, is reserved for the UK. Despite its apparent willingness in the 2000s to forgo a treaty with Colombia over withholding taxes on technical service fees, Britain retains, as a legacy of its negotiations from 1973 until the turn of the century, the largest number of treaties of any OECD Member containing just such a clause