The European Commission decided two of its major tax subsidy cases on Wednesday, October 21, and the rulings could not have been worse for Starbucks and Fiat (h/t Chillin’ Competition). These cases can be seen as a barometer of what is to come in the legally similar but much larger case of Apple, where potentially billions of euros could be at stake.
The gist of the three cases is that tax haven subsidiaries of each company (Starbucks in the Netherlands, Fiat in Luxembourg, and Apple in Ireland) were given advance tax rulings by each country that were so removed from economic reality as to constitute illegal subsidies (“state aid” in Euro-speak) under EU competition law. In the Commission’s decision, it was emphasized that the artificially low tax bills created by the rulings gave them an unfair competitive advantage over competitors, especially small business (“small and medium-sized enterprises” or “SMEs” in Euro-terminology).
Since the alleged subsidies were not notified to the European Commission in advance as required by EU law, the Commission has ruled that Starbucks and Fiat have to repay the illegal aid to the granting countries, with interest. The decision states that each company will owe € 20-30 million in aid repayments.
Of course, both of these cases will be appealed to the European court system, all the way to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the highest court in the EU. Tax haven shenanigans are built into the economic structure of both Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and the two countries will do everything they can to maintain the status quo. The Apple case is much bigger, because it goes back all the way to 1991, and some estimates have put its tax savings at billions per year. If Apple loses, and I think it will, we can again be assured that the case will be appealed to the CJEU.
If the Commission makes these decisions stand up on appeal, it will dramatically change the shape of tax havens in Europe (including Switzerland, which the EU holds as being subject to the state aid rules through its free trade agreement). It won’t put them out of business, because the decisions pertain to corporate income tax rather than personal income tax, but the amount of revenue lost on the corporate tax alone is a very big deal.
Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.