Apple’s Cook lobbies EU antitrust chief over Irish back taxes
Christian Oliver in Brussels
Apple's Tim Cook
Apple boss Tim Cook made a surprise visit to Brussels
on Thursday to lobby the EU’s antitrust chief weeks before she is set to rule on a landmark case that could force the California-based technology company to pay billions in underpaid taxes to Ireland.
The EU’s probe into Apple’s Irish tax arrangements has become one of the most politically-charged cases pursued by Brussels since it took on Microsoft two decades ago. Coupled with its antitrust case against Google, it has sparked accusations in Washington that European commissioner Margrethe Vestager is unfairly targeting the US technology sector.
A spokesman for Ms Vestager confirmed she held a “private meeting” with Mr Cook,
but gave no further details. Apple also declined to comment on what took place at the meeting.
Dublin is known to be angry about what it believes is unfair treatment of Apple, and its officials worry Ms Vestager’s staff has changed their legal arguments in the run-up to a decision on whether to order a repayment of back taxes.
The Danish commissioner has rejected accusations of bias and argued that she is trying to ensure that EU countries do not give “sweetheart” tax deals to selected multinationals,
which would be unavailable to competitors, simply to secure investment.
People close to the investigation say a decision will come after the Irish election, which is expected in late February. Both the Irish government and Apple have argued that they have done nothing wrong, and Dublin has vowed to appeal any finding against it.
But Mr Cook’s personal intervention is a sign that Apple is worried about the direction of Ms Vestager’s inquiry, especially after she ruled in October that Luxembourg and the Netherlands had provided improper tax benefits to the Italian carmaker Fiat and the US coffee shop chain Starbucks
— the first such rulings in her expanding corporate tax probe. Those cases are now being appealed.
Mr Cook is no stranger to taking on senior politicians critical of the company’s tax practices and emerging with newfound allies.
Two years ago, he appeared before a US Senate inquiry into corporate America’s use of offshore tax havens and was able to win over several sceptical senators with a mix of defiance and steeliness that belied the laid-back Alabama persona he projects during the company’s product unveilings.
Analysts believe the stakes could be enormous because of the huge sums of money that Dublin could be forced to recover from Apple. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates the potential clawback at around $8bn, while JPMorgan has argued that Apple could have to pay $19bn in a worst-case scenario.
Lawyers in Brussels say that the European Commission is unlikely to set such a high recovery figure, but warn that it could still be the biggest sum ever involved in a commission decision.
Because tax policy is technically a competence of the member states, the commission has taken a novel and contentious approach to tackling preferential tax deals by using powerful rules concerning illegal state aid. In effect, Brussels is arguing that tax rulings are a form of illegal subsidy that gives companies an unfair advantage over their rivals.
However, people close to Apple and Ireland insist their case is very different from the previous ones. Apple stresses that it has a large presence in Ireland, and that its European headquarters are in Cork with 5,500 employees in the country — unlike some other multinationals, which occasionally have only nameplates to establish residency in tax havens.
Many of the commission’s critics say that the money earned in Ireland is simply deferred tax that will ultimately be payable to the US Treasury once Apple repatriates the funds. They argue that a large share of what the commission views as taxable income is already booked a deferred US tax in Apple’s quarterly accounts.
They also accuse the commission of using the state aid weapon retroactively to trample over tax arrangements that were made in full accordance with Irish law.