EU's Apple ruling 'step backward' in fighting tax abuse, former IRS leader says

Former IRS Commissioner on Apple vs. EU
Secretary Lew comments on Apple ruling
EU tax ruling on Apple

The European Union's fight for Apple's tax money may actually create setbacks for tax reform, a former U.S. tax authority told CNBC.

"I'm troubled by this — I think it's a step backward in going after tax abuses," former IRS Commissioner Mark Everson told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Wednesday. "There's a host of problems here that really set us quite far backwards."

The European Commission on Tuesday ordered the Irish government to recover up to 13 billion euros ($14.5 billion) — plus interest — in back taxes from Apple. It comes as Apple managed to pay a 0.005 percent tax rate in 2014, using a tax structure for its subsidiaries that the EU argued did not reflect "economic reality."

There does need to be more balance in the taxes paid by businesses, said Everson, now vice chairman of Alliantgroup, which advises U.S. companies to take full advantage of federal and state tax credits, incentives and deductions. Everson said that the EU's recent ruling challenges the international cooperation that already surrounds this issue.

"I don't think it's a fight about the money — I think it's a fight about the rule of law, and who has the authority to impose the tax. I don't think the EU does," Everson said.

Everson pointed to organizations like the Joint International Tax Shelter Information Centre, where countries are already working together to determine appropriate taxes for large corporations.

"This challenges that cooperation that has been building," Everson said. "If a third party can just come in and upset the apple cart, why should other countries cooperate?"

His comments echoed those of U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who said the action was "inconsistent" with well-established tax law.

"You've already seen some sparring between U.S. leaders and European leaders on the fact that it's creating an environment that is not favorable for U.S. businesses, and perhaps it's over the top, negative for ... all U.S. businesses that are operating in Europe," Ellie Wheeler, partner at venture capital firm Greycroft Partners, told CNBC's "Squawk Alley" on Wednesday. "The applications are far beyond Apple, so they really need to take a tough stand."

Everson said that the EU's authority over Irish tax law is "tenuous," and the retrospective nature of the ruling, as well as the use of antitrust law, are not the way to go at the problem.

"This is a watershed moment where I think you've got a real overreach," Everson said. "The Obama administration has been pretty aggressive in using the tax code, but even they were stunned by this."