ECJ issues important decision on the Beneficial Owner concept
Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) has issued two important decisions on the interpretation of the beneficial ownership concept in cases where the Interest and Royalties Directive and the Parent-Subsidiary Directive apply. The ECJ concluded that it is for the referring courts to assess whether the arrangements under review constitute an abuse under EU law, taking into account in particular the existence of conduit companies.
On 26 February 2019 the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) issued two important decisions on the interpretation of the beneficial ownership concept in cases where the Interest and Royalties Directive (joined cases N Luxembourg, X Denmark, C Danmark and Z Denmark) and the Parent-Subsidiary Directive (joined cases T Danmark and Y Denmark) apply. The ECJ concluded that it is for the referring courts to assess whether the arrangements under review constitute an abuse under EU law, taking into account in particular the existence of conduit companies.
The four joined cases N Luxembourg 1 (C-115/16), X Denmark (C-118/16) and C Danmark 1 (C-119/16) and Z Denmark case (C-299/16) all involve back-to-back financing transactions, under which a Danish resident subsidiary is financed by its non-resident parent company via a series of loans granted to intermediary holding companies resident in another EU Member State. The two joined cases T Danmark (C-116/16) and Y Denmark (C-117/16) both concern dividend distributions made by a Danish resident company to an intermediate holding company resident in the EU.
In all cases, the Danish company requested an exemption from the Danish withholding tax levied on the payments made to the EU company, based respectively on the Interest and Royalties Directive (2003/49/EC) and on the Parent-Subsidiary Directive (90/435/EC). The Danish tax authorities denied the exemption, arguing that the company receiving the income was a conduit structure and could not be considered the beneficial owner of the payment.
The taxpayers appealed these refusals before the Danish courts. The Danish courts in turn asked the ECJ to clarify whether Denmark may deny the benefits of the EU Directives and impose withholding tax on the underlying payments. The Danish courts also requested clarification of the applicability of the OECD’s Commentaries on the Model Tax Convention in this respect, and on the requirements for a domestic or a Double Tax Treaty provision to qualify as anti-abuse provisions under the respective Directives.
The ECJ noted that EU law prohibits abusive practices as a general principle and concluded that under fraudulent circumstances Denmark must deny the benefit of an EU Directive, even in the absence of domestic or other anti-abuse provisions. Contrary to the Advocate General’s (AG) Opinion ( Tax & Legal News from April 2018), the ECJ concluded that in this case denying the benefit of an EU Directive merely results from the application of a general principle of EU law and therefore does not infringe the principle of legal certainty, which prohibits directives from being able by themselves to create obligations for individuals.
Noting that it is for the referring courts to assess whether the arrangements under review are in fact abusive, the ECJ pointed out that an abusive situation can be evidenced in the combined presence of objective (the purpose of the EU Directives is circumvented, despite a formal observance of the conditions required for their application) and subjective elements (existence of a wholly artificial arrangement, as well as an intention to obtain a (tax) advantage). The existence of a conduit company without economic substance, which cannot use or enjoy the income received but has the obligation to pass it on to a third party, could also be considered a further indication of abuse. The fact that Denmark has concluded a tax treaty with the state of residence of the alleged ultimate beneficiary of the income cannot in itself rule out the existence of an abusive situation.
If abuse is identified, the ECJ further ruled, contrary to the AG’s Opinion, that a Member State cannot be required to identify the person it deems to be the beneficial owner of the income, as it may be impossible for the national authorities to provide this information.
Lastly, the ECJ briefly addressed the potential infringement of the fundamental freedoms and concluded that the latter cannot be relied upon in abusive situations.
The ECJ also noted that the exemption of interest payments from any taxes as provided for by the Interest and Royalties Directive is restricted solely to the beneficial owners of such interest and further emphasized that such beneficial owner is the entity that economically benefits and has the freedom to use and enjoy the interest. In this respect, the ECJ underlined that the OECD Model Tax Convention and the pertinent commentaries are relevant for interpreting the concept of beneficial owner under the Interest and Royalties Directive, as the original directive’s proposal is based on the OECD work in this matter.
Lastly, the ECJ addressed several questions on the general interpretation of the Interest and Royalties Directive that do not directly relate to abusive situations. Examining the case of the Luxembourg SICAR investment fund in the X Denmark case, the ECJ concluded that even if the SICAR is formally subject to corporate income tax in Luxembourg, it cannot benefit from the Directive if the interest income is in fact tax-exempt. Following settled case law as regards the Danish legislation possibly infringing the free movement of capital in non-abusive cases, the ECJ further noted that the Danish withholding tax on interest paid to non-residents infringed EU law insofar as resident taxpayers receiving Danish sourced interest (1) benefit from a tax payment deferral, (2) enjoy lower late payment interest rates and (3) may take any business expenses directly related to the interest income received into account when assessing their taxable income.
It is interesting to note that the ECJ’s decision substantially differs from the AG’s Opinion on various aspects of the case, including whether the OECD work could be relevant in interpreting provisions of the Interest and Royalties Directive or whether national tax authorities should be required to identify the person they deem to be the beneficial owner of the income in cases of abuse. The CJEU nonetheless provides much needed guidance on the interpretation of the concept of abuse under EU law and on the beneficial owner concept under the Interest and Royalties Directive in particular. In many respects, it would appear that the concept of abuse under EU law continues to evolve.