Ireland, Luxembourg, UK, and EU Commitments

In a letter to the Irish government published Tuesday, the European Commission, the 28-member bloc’s central antitrust authority, said it had reached the “preliminary view” that tax deals struck in Ireland in 1991 and 2007 in favor of Apple constituted state aid.

1991! No statute of limitations here. That’s a small matter, though. The larger matter is the degree of freedom that sovereign nations have to govern their internal affairs while remaining a part of the European Union.

The beef here, and it’s a similar one involving Fiat in Luxembourg, and Starbucks and others in other constituent nations of the EU (the details vary from case to case), is this. Ireland didn’t impose a high enough tax on Apple’s Irish-earned income to suit the Authorities of the EU. That letter, in the form of a “report,” complained:

The main question in the present case is whether the rulings confer a selective advantage upon Apple insofar as it results in a lowering of its tax liability in Ireland….

The EU long has objected to the low Irish tax rates, insisting that these are somehow unfair to the other member nations, nations that have much higher tax rates. And no, don’t expect those nations to lower their taxes to compete; Ireland must raise its taxes so as to be less competitive.

The EU complained further:

[There were] several inconsistencies in the application of the transfer pricing method chosen when determining profit allocation [and costs had been] reverse engineered so as to arrive at a taxable income.

Because it’s shameful for a company—or a nation—to work to protect the company’s (and so the company owners’) money. It’s not their money, after all, it belongs to the EU. To paraphrase a man from the other side of the Pond, they didn’t earn that. Somebody else made that happen.

As James Stewart, a tax expert at Trinity College Dublin, noted,

There’s no doubt that this is damaging to Ireland. There’s a deeply held belief that our low corporate tax regime is central to Ireland’s industrial policy. The commission letter gives notice that these types of tax rates are under scrutiny. It will be much more difficult for Ireland to give similar deals to other multinational companies.

But that doesn’t matter. Ireland didn’t earn that, either.

The UK needs to watch this situation in Ireland very carefully and to think long and hard about the value of an EU commitment and the cost of EU insistence on intruding into the domestic affairs of its member nations. The importance of the occurrence of the UK’s EU membership referendum has gained immeasurably from this EU behavior, and the outcome of that referendum now is even more important to the vitality of the UK.

Ireland, Luxembourg, and the others, also need to think very carefully about the value they’re gaining from EU membership, and the costs they’re bearing from that membership. What is the EU’s commitment to its members, if it reserves the right to intrude?

The European Commission’s allegations can be seen here.

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