Fiscal state aid is a hot topic right now, with a number of high-profile cases going through the European courts.
Under EU law, Member States are prohibited from giving an advantage in any form whatsoever to undertakings on a selective basis, unless it is justified by reasons of general economic development.
The test is set out in Art 107 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU):
“[…] any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings or the production of certain goods shall, in so far as it affects trade between Member States, be incompatible with the internal market.”
The concept of state aid is wider than that of a subsidy, embracing not only positive benefits, such as subsidies, but ‘also interventions which, in various forms, mitigate the charges which are normally included in the budget of an undertaking and which, without therefore being subsidies in the strict meaning of the word, are similar in character and have the same effect’.
An aid could include subsidies, interest-free or low-interest loans or interest rate subsidies, guarantees on preferential terms, supply of goods or services on preferential terms, capital injections on preferential terms etc.
In order to fall under the scope of Art 107 TFEU, the aid must be granted by a Member State or through Member State resources. This encompasses regional or local authorities and public bodies. There must be a burden on state resources, not just an incidental benefit given without a financial burden.
Very importantly, the aid must favour certain undertakings or the production of certain goods (the ‘selectivity’ principle), which distort or threaten to distort competition, and must be capable of affecting trade between Member States.
The salient question is whether the recipient of the advantage is receiving a benefit that it would not have otherwise received under normal market conditions. The benefit should improve the undertaking’s financial position or reduce the costs that it would have had to bear.
The Commission does not need to prove that trade will be affected. It is sufficient to show that the measure threatens competition, i.e. that intra-EU trade may be affected and not necessarily permanently. For general guidance, see the Commission’s 2016 Notice.
Under Art 107(2) TFEU, certain types of aid such as aid of a social character or aid to help in case of a natural disaster are deemed to be compatible with EU law. Furthermore, aid may be compatible with the internal market if it falls within any of the six derogations laid down in Art 107(3) TFEU. These derogations have been construed strictly, though some of these proved essential in the context of past financial crises and the COVID-19 era.
Whether or not a measure is state aid for the purposes of this provision is a question that the courts both at European and national level have competence to decide. However, whether such state aid is compatible with the common market (i.e. whether it is lawful), is a question that the national courts do not have legal competence to deal with – only the European Commission at first instance.
The Commission has a pivotal role in the application of the state aid prohibition. It keeps constant review of existing aids offered by Member States. Furthermore, Member States are required to notify the Commission as to any plans to grant or alter state aid. The Commission may also ask the Court of Justice to order a Member State to recover illegal state aid.
Companies themselves may trigger investigations by lodging complaints with the Commission. In fact, during an investigation (or even prior to it), the Commission often invites interested parties to submit comments. A company may be affected by the state aid prohibition whether it is the recipient of aid or the competitor of the recipient. Recently, a direct action against a Commission decision brought by competitors of the beneficiaries of a state aid measure was allowed in the Scuola Elementare Maria Montessori case.
Aid given to a company must be repaid if it is unlawful or has not been properly notified or approved by the Commission. If repayment is demanded, within a period of four months, the taxpayer must reimburse the full amount of the financial benefit conferred, including interest, for up to a maximum of ten years prior to the start of an investigation. No recovery is necessary when the unlawful aid was given more than ten years before the Commission’s decision.
The state aid prohibition has become very high profile in the tax field. Tax measures that relieve the recipients of charges that are normally borne from their budgets such as reductions in the tax base, total or partial reduction in the amount of tax (exemption of tax credit), deferment, cancellation or even special rescheduling of tax debt are examples of fiscal state aid. Such tax measures are thought to be granted by the state or through state resources. This is because a tax exemption mitigates the charge that would normally be recoverable from the undertaking. Therefore, the state loses tax revenue. This loss of tax revenue is equivalent to consumption of state resources in the form of fiscal expenditure.
Recent state aid investigations have centred around tax rulings or advance pricing agreements given by Member State tax authorities to various multinationals. What was objectionable to the Commission in each of these cases was that the tax rulings given by Member States allowed the MNE beneficiaries to depart from market conditions in setting the commercial conditions of intra-group transactions, which led to significant tax reductions and very low effective tax rates.
Questioning discretionary practices of tax administrations is not something new in the area of state aid. As noted in the 1998 Commission state aid notice on business taxation, treating economic agents on a discretionary basis may mean that the individual application of a general measure takes on the features of a selective measure, in particular where exercise of the discretionary power goes beyond the simple management of tax revenue by reference to objective criteria.
In the last few months, decisions of the European Court of Justice on some of these cases have come out but we are still waiting for many more. What seems to be emerging from the Fiat and Starbucks appeals is that a tax ruling which does not seem to follow the OECD’s arm’s length principle does not necessarily mean that it falls within the scope of the EU’s state aid prohibition. It is important to assess the reference system of the investigated Member State in order to determine whether the tax ruling is an exception to that system and not whether it deviates from a general abstract arm’s length principle.
Of course as the arm’s length principle as well as the OECD’s Transfer Pricing Guidelines are now incorporated or closely followed by most Member States, including Cyprus, a tax ruling or advance pricing agreement given by the tax administration which allows a tax treatment incompatible with the arm’s length principle is very likely to fall foul of the state aid prohibition. Therefore, special caution should be taken by tax authorities in giving tax rulings, to ensure that the rulings are aligned with the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines. Furthermore, undertakings receiving beneficial tax treatment – whether through a ruling or advance pricing agreement or other mitigating measure – should bear in mind that if it is too good to be true, it is probably state aid and will need to be reimbursed at some point.
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