The European Commission said Monday it had ordered Belgium to recover about 700 million euros ($762 million) from at least 35 multinationals after concluding that Belgian authorities had unfairly provided the companies with tax breaks.
The commission’s case against Belgium is part of a crackdown on overly generous tax schemes throughout the 28-nation EU bloc and focused on tax rulings that lowered the multinationals’ tax base by deducting so-called excess profit.
The practice usually resulted in the companies concerned noting pay taxes on more than 50% — and in some cases up to 90% — of their actual profits, according to the commission. The beneficiaries included Anheuser-Busch InBev NV , BP Plc, BASF SE, Proximus SA, Atlas Copco AB, Wabco Holdings, and Celio France SAS.
Belgium’s De Tijd newspaper has reported that a tax agreement allowed AB InBev to transfer 140 million euros of profit from around the world over three years to a Belgian company that exists only on paper.
“National tax authorities cannot give any company, however large or powerful, an unfair competitive advantage compared to others,” Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief, said in a news release. “This means that national tax authorities cannot establish tax schemes that only benefit a select group of companies, in this case, multinationals.”
The EU has said tax avoidance and evasion cost about 1 trillion euros a year. Last year, it ordered the Netherlands to recover as much as 30 million euros in back taxes from Starbucks Corp.
The Belgian loophole goes back to 2005, allowing multinationals to deduct profits from their taxes that reflect supposed intra-group synergies and economies of scale. Belgium argued that the policy prevented double taxation but Versteger said it amounted to “double non-taxation, as this ‘excess profit’ is actual recorded profit, which ends up not taxed anywhere.”
Belgian Finance Minister Johan Van Overtveldt said the country would consider an appeal, warning that recovering the 700 million euros would be difficult for the companies affected and a logistical nightmare for tax officials.