US abusing law for 'extortion' of corporate Europe, says French lawmaker

PARIS (REUTERS) - Europe should challenge the United States over its increasingly aggressive use of extraterritorial laws that have cost European companies - especially banks - billions in fines and other settlements, a French parliamentary report said.

Still reeling from the US$9 billion (S$12.4 billion) fine its biggest bank, BNP Paribas, had to pay US authorities over violations of American sanctions against other countries, the French government has criticised in recent years what it considers the over-reach of the US legal system.

Paris's main objections centre on the US Department of Justice's broad interpretation of what it considers its jurisdiction.

This sphere of influence can include transactions between non-Americans outside the US where the US dollar currency is involved. It can also cover deals and other actions taking place via the Internet using US computer servers.

"We consider that today's situation amounts to abusive use of American law," Ms Karine Berger, a lawmaker from the ruling Socialist party told Reuters in an interview, calling the practices akin to "extortion".

"We ask France and Europe to let it be known to the United States that we will no longer accept this type of behaviour."

In a non-binding investigative report last week, lawmakers from both the Socialist party and opposition conservatives said US law appeared to be more punitive towards foreign firms than domestic ones.

Although foreign firms accounted for only 30 per cent of investigations opened by US authorities between 1977 and 2014 under its anti-foreign bribery law, 67 per cent of the amount levied in fines came from foreign companies, the report said.

Since 2009, European banks such as HSBC and Deutsche Bank have paid about US$16 billion to the United States over breaches of various sanction regimes. European firms have also accounted for 14 of the 15 biggest penalties, the report said.

The report did not question US regulators' current prosecution of Deutsche Bank over mis-selling toxic mortgage securities before the financial crisis, since the actions took place in the United States.

But it did say the DoJ had not taken account of the impact on the financial system that the US$14 billion fine it sought from the German bank went on to have.

Swiss bank Credit Suisse said on Sunday (Oct 9) it has put five employees on leave while it investigates a tax-related matter. Swiss paper SonntagsZeitung reported that the move was connected to a US probe of the bank's Israeli unit over possible tax evasion.

Ms Berger said Europe's response had not been forceful enough, and that both the European Union and individual member states should adapt their own legislation, which is why the report will be sent to counterparts at other EU parliaments.

"There must be a legal rearmament in Europe, so we fight on equal terms with the United States in the field of economic competition," Ms Berger said.

The European Union should consider challenging parts of the US sanction regime at the World Trade Organisation, the report said, citing a 1998 precedent when Europeans successfully forced the US to back down over Congressional sanctions against Cuba, Libya and Iran that could have affected European firms.

The EU should update a 1996 ban on European firms complying with US sanctions based on such extraterritorial legislation, giving European firms a legal "excuse" to reject US demands.

European countries and institutions should also encourage the use of the euro for global transactions and strengthen the use of intelligence services for economic means.

Citing the recent EU ruling asking Apple to pay up to 13 billion euros (S$19.8 billion) in back taxes to Ireland, Ms Berger said Europe should not be afraid to be more confrontational.

"It shows Europe is perfectly capable of waging this economic war since the US is only going to keep it up," she said.