Los Angeles, CA – European Commission (EC) competition regulators are investigating tax breaks for Apple Inc. and Starbucks Corp. in Ireland and The Netherlands, respectively, that it suspects are in violation of European Union tax codes.
The investigation comes as governments around the world are cracking down on tax-avoidance and evasion by scrutinizing the financial practices of a growing number of multi-national companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Google, Microsoft, McDonalds, and Amazon.com.
According to the EC, tax avoidance and evasion by foreign companies operating in the EU amounts to more than $1.4 trillion a year.
The EC reportedly began gathering information about accords between Apple and Ireland, and Starbucks and the Netherlands last year following reports that some companies received “significant” tax reductions.
“We need to fight against aggressive tax planning,” said Joaquin Almunia, the EU’s competition commissioner at a recent press conference in Brussels, adding that it is “still too soon to anticipate” possible recovery if the EU finds the tax rulings to be illegal.”
While Starbuck’s didn’t respond to requests for a statement on the EC investigation, California-based Apple issued a response saying that the company “pays every euro of every tax that we owe. We have received no selective treatment from Irish officials. Apple is subject to the same tax laws as scores of other international companies doing business in Ireland.”
Ireland’s Finance Ministry said it is “confident that there is no state-aid-rule breach” and will “defend all aspects vigorously.”
The EC said that it is “concerned that current arrangements could underestimate the taxable profit and grant an advantage to the respective companies by allowing them to pay less tax.”
Apple, the company said in a public statement, “pays every euro of every tax that we owe. We have received no selective treatment from Irish officials. Apple is subject to the same tax laws as scores of other international companies doing business in Ireland.”
Ireland’s Finance Ministry said it is “confident that there is no state-aid-rule breach” and will “defend all aspects vigorously.” The EU probe targets “a very technical tax issue in a specific case” and covers 2004 to 2014, it said in an e-mailed statement.
“Patent Boxes” Under the Microscope
Widening the scope of its investigation, the EC is also seeking details from Belgium, Spain, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, the UK, Cyprus and Malta on so-called “patent boxes,” a mechanism that allows tax reductions on income derived from patents.
The EC said in March it has indications that the programs mainly benefit highly mobile businesses without triggering significant additional research and development.
The UK, for example, patent box phases in a lower corporation tax on some profits from patented inventions and certain other innovations, according to the EC website.
Changes to EU tax rules require unanimous approval among the bloc’s 28-member nations, rendering major changes to individual county’s tax regulations difficult, if not impossible as even the most enthusiastic members of the bloc cling to their right to set corporate tax rates.
The opening of an in-depth investigation by the commission allows third parties, as well as the three countries concerned, an opportunity to submit comments.