Distinguishing the Concepts from the Misconceptions
For an effective tax planning strategy, businesses in Cyprus need to be fully aware of the concepts of taxation on a European level and how they affect Cyprus at present and how they may affect it going forward. This article aims to give an informed overview as a first step to gaining such an understanding.
There is often a misconception that the EU dictates all Cyprus tax laws. Whilst this is true as regards indirect taxes such as VAT, customs and excise which are largely harmonized, technically, the power to levy direct taxes, including corporate taxes, remains within the exclusive powers of Member States.
However, these powers must be exercised consistently with general EU law, that is, the EU’s fundamental freedoms, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the state aid prohibition. This obligation is derived from the supremacy of EU law over domestic law. In terms of tax law this general EU law and the various Directives are considered as “hard law”.
Cyprus’ corporate tax laws are primarily set out in the Income Tax Law (Law 118(I)/2002, as amended) and the Special Contribution for Defence Law (Law 117 (I)/2002, as amended). There are also important provisions in some of Cyprus’ pre-accession general tax instruments: the Capital Gains Tax Legislation of 1980 (Law 52/1980, as amended) and the Assessment and Collection of Taxes Legislation of 1978 (Law 4/1978)
Since Cyprus acceded to the EU, there have been few changes to its corporate tax system which were necessary as a result of EU legislation (usually, Directives). This was because in anticipation to join the EU in 2004, Cyprus had already overhauled its tax system, including its corporate tax system, to ensure compatibility with the acquis Communautaire.
Accordingly, at the time of accession to the EU, Cyprus had already incorporated in its domestic law the then existing EU corporate tax law concepts: namely, the Parent-Subsidiary Directive, the Interest and Royalties Directive, the Merger Directive, and the Mutual Assistance Directives dealing with recovery of taxes and exchange of information.
Furthermore, pre-accession, Cyprus legislation was assessed under the Code of Conduct on Business Taxation, which is considered as “soft law”. Within the context of taxation although soft law is not, technically speaking, legally binding, nevertheless, it carries important political weight and must be followed. Numerous potential harmful tax measures were therefore identified and repealed at the beginning of 2003.
However, as we all know, law in general, and specifically EU law is not static. Since Cyprus’ accession to the EU, several incorporated Directives have been amended. Obviously, the amendments had to be again incorporated in Cyprus laws, as under EU law, directives (and their subsequent amendments) must be adopted by Member States within the time frame provided, otherwise, they become directly effective.
For example, when the Parent-Subsidiary Directive was amended in order to withdraw the exemption of dividends received when these were deductible in the country of the paying company, this amendment was incorporated into Cyprus tax laws (Art 8(20) of Income Tax legislation). Similarly, when the 1977 Directive on Mutual Assistance (Directive 77/799/EEC) was replaced with the 2011 Directive on Administrative Cooperation (Directive 2011/16/EU), the changes had to be incorporated in Cyprus tax law. In fact, this Directive has been amended several times since 2011 and each time, Cyprus has had to amend its tax laws to ensure compliance with the Directive.
Furthermore, since Cyprus’ accession, new Directives have been adopted – for example, the infamous Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive (ATAD I & II) and the Tax Dispute Resolution Mechanisms Directive. The provisions of ATAD I & II were subsequently incorporated in Cyprus Income Tax Law (Arts 11A, 11B, 11C, Art 11(16)(a), Art 33B and Art 36A as amended by Law 3 of 80(I)/2020). The Tax Dispute Resolution Mechanisms Directive was incorporated in Art 36B, 36C and 36D of the Income Tax Law (as amended by Law 151(I)/2019).
Cyprus is now gearing up to adopt the Directive on Minimum Effective Tax Rate, which was approved in Council in December 2022. Member States were given until the 31 December 2023 to incorporate the provisions of the new Directive into domestic law.
There are also a number of other legislative tax proposals in the pipelines, which have not yet been approved in Council: for example, the proposed “Unshell” Directive, the proposed Directive on Faster and Safer Relief of Excess Withholding Taxes and the (not yet proposed) SAFE Directive which will look at the activity of tax enablers.
Recently, the Commission has also proposed three very important Directives: the BEFIT Directive (Business in Europe: Framework for Income Taxation), the Transfer Pricing Directive and the Directive on Head Office Tax.
In addition to EU legislative instruments that must be incorporated into domestic legislation, like all Member States, Cyprus needs to closely follow the jurisprudence and the precedents emanating from tax litigation at the Court of Justice. This is necessary so as to ensure that Cyprus domestic law remains compatible with EU primary law (i.e. the fundamental freedoms, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the state aid prohibition etc). For example, if the tax legislation of another Member State is found to be in breach of freedom of establishment and Cyprus contains similar tax rules, these must be amended. Similarly, if a tax provision or administrative practice of the tax department of another Member State is investigated by the Commission and found to be in breach of the state aid prohibition, if Cyprus has a similar tax provision or administrative practice, this must be repealed.
Failure to do so could lead to an infringement procedure by the Commission. Furthermore, affected taxpayers could also sue the Cyprus government in domestic courts on the basis of the Francovich principle of state liability.
Apart from legislative amendments, Cyprus has had to follow closely the work of the Code of Conduct Group, to ensure compatibility with the Code of Conduct on Business taxation. Although this is soft law, as explained above, it has significant political force. In fact, since 2004, Cyprus’ tax system was formally investigated twice by the Code of Conduct Group.
The first investigation focused on the Cyprus Intellectual Property Regime which provided for a deductible expense for corporate income tax purposes, calculated as 80% of the qualifying profits (Art 9(1)(e) of Income Tax Law). The effective rate on the profits qualifying for the CIPR was 2.5%. This regime was found not to be harmful.
The second investigation focused on the Notional Interest Deduction rule (Art 9B of Income Tax Law). The amended version of the legislation was found in 2020 not to be harmful.
Furthermore, following the Code of Conduct Group’s Guidance on defensive measures in the tax area towards non-cooperative jurisdictions, Cyprus’ has had to introduce withholding taxes to payments of dividends, interest and royalties flowing to countries included in the EU’s list of non-cooperative jurisdictions. In the latest update to this list, Russia was added.
Moreover, there have been important changes as a result of the international tax community’s initiatives. For example, even though Cyprus is not an OECD member country nor included in the Inclusive Framework due to Turkey blocking its membership, nevertheless, Cyprus has been following closely the work of the OECD/G20 and its recommendations. Cyprus has signed up to the Multilateral Instrument. It also updated its Transfer Pricing Regime in light of the OECD’s Transfer Pricing Guidelines.
Whilst Cyprus has been broadly compliant with EU (hard law and soft law) obligations and OECD/G20 standards, it is currently being asked by the EU to revamp aspects of its corporate tax system which are perceived to be facilitating aggressive tax planning. Other Member States such as Luxembourg and Malta have also been asked to amend their tax systems to curb aggressive tax planning.
In the Council’s 2020 country specific recommendations for Cyprus, in paragraph 26 it was reiterated that tackling aggressive tax planning was key to improving the efficiency and fairness of tax systems. Furthermore, in the Cyprus Recovery and Resilience Plan, there is a reform objective to increase the effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of the tax system by combatting tax evasion and aggressive tax planning practices by multinational enterprises (MNEs) by June 2026 (Reform 10 of component 3.5).
In the more recent Commission 2023 Annual Report on Taxation, it is stated that under the Recovery and Resilience Facility “several Member States have committed to address aspects of their tax systems that facilitate [aggressive tax planning], with key milestones (including the establishment of withholding taxes on outbound payments or a similar defensive measure) expected to be completed by the end of 2023 (e.g. HU) and in 2024 (e.g. CY, IE)”. It is expressly stated that country specific recommendations have been put on hold for some Member States, including Cyprus, in order to take account of the progress made in the context of the Recovery and Resilience Facility.
Going forward it should be noted that Cyprus’ corporate tax laws are currently being evaluated and legislative changes are expected in some areas. Broadly, although EU hard law has had a rather limited impact on the Cyprus corporate tax system after the country’s accession to the EU, it would seem that lately, many of the significant constraints or drivers for reform are derived from EU soft law. This is likely to change if the legislative initiatives that are in the pipeline, especially BEFIT, are eventually approved in Council and adopted.
For any information on any of the issues raised in this newsletter in the context of your business strategy and longer term tax planning please get in touch with us.