The General Court annuls the contested decision because the Commission did not succeed in showing to the requisite legal standard that there was an advantage for the purposes of Article 107 TFEU.
In 2016 the Commission adopted a decision concerning two tax rulings issued by the Irish tax authorities (Irish Revenue) on 29 January 1991 and 23 May 2007 in favour of Apple Sales International (ASI) and Apple Operations Europe (AOE), which were companies incorporated in Ireland but not tax resident in Ireland. The contested tax rulings endorsed the methods used by ASI and AOE to determine their chargeable profits in Ireland, relating to the trading activity of their respective Irish branches. The 1991 tax ruling remained in force until 2007, when it was replaced by the 2007 tax ruling. The 2007 tax ruling then remained in force until Apple’s new business structure was implemented in Ireland in 2014.
By its decision, the Commission considered that the tax rulings in question constituted State aid unlawfully put into effect by Ireland. The aid was declared incompatible with the internal market. The Commission demanded the recovery of the aid in question. According to the Commission’s calculations, Ireland had granted Apple 13 billion euro in unlawful tax advantages.
Ireland (Case T-778/16) and ASI and AOE (Case T-892/16) claimed that the General Court should annul the Commission’s decision.
By today’s judgment, the General Court annuls the contested decision because the Commission did not succeed in showing to the requisite legal standard that there was an advantage for the purposes of Article 107 TFEU.
According to the General Court, the Commission was wrong to declare that ASI and AOE had been granted a selective economic advantage and, by extension, State aid.
The General Court endorses the Commission’s assessments relating to normal taxation under the Irish tax law applicable in the present instance, in particular having regard to the tools developed within the OECD, such as the arm’s length principle, in order to check whether the level of chargeable profits endorsed by the Irish tax authorities corresponds to that which would have been obtained under market conditions.
However, the General Court considers that the Commission incorrectly concluded, in its primary line of reasoning, that the Irish tax authorities had granted ASI and AOE an advantage as a result of not having allocated the Apple Group intellectual property licences held by ASI and AOE, and, consequently, all of ASI and AOE’s trading income, obtained from the Apple Group’s sales outside North and South America, to their Irish branches. According to the General Court, the Commission should have shown that that income represented the value of the activities actually carried out by the Irish branches themselves, in view of, inter alia, the activities and functions actually performed by the Irish branches of ASI and AOE, on the one hand, and the strategic decisions taken and implemented outside of those branches, on the other.
In addition, the General Court considers that the Commission did not succeed in demonstrating, in its subsidiary line of reasoning, methodological errors in the contested tax rulings which would have led to a reduction in ASI and AOE’s chargeable profits in Ireland. Although the General Court regrets the incomplete and occasionally inconsistent nature of the contested tax rulings, the defects identified by the Commission are not, in themselves, sufficient to prove the existence of an advantage for the purposes of Article 107 TFEU.
Furthermore, the General Court considers that the Commission did not prove, in its alternative line of reasoning, that the contested tax rulings were the result of discretion exercised by the Irish tax authorities and that, accordingly, ASI and AOE had been granted a selective advantage.