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UEFA’s tax-free Euro 2016 in France: State aid or no State aid?

Last week, the French newspaper Les Echos broke the story that UEFA (or better said its subsidiary) will be exempted from paying taxes in France on revenues derived from Euro 2016. At a time when International Sporting Federations, most notably FIFA, are facing heavy criticisms for their bidding procedures and the special treatment enjoyed by their officials, this tax exemption was not likely to go unnoticed. The French minister for sport, confronted with an angry public opinion, responded by stating that tax exemptions are common practice regarding international sporting events. The former French government agreed to this exemption. In fact, he stressed that without it “France would never have hosted the competition and the Euro 2016 would have gone elsewhere”.

This is not the first time that UEFA is exempted from paying taxes in a host country. For example, for the Euro 2012, UEFA was not subject to direct taxation in Poland.[1] Similar conditions were also part of the application procedures for Euro 2004 and Euro 2008, but is up to the host country to decide how it fulfils the tax exemption requirement of UEFA.

On 12 November 2014 the French council of ministers approved a draft legislation that would provide a fiscally advantageous solution for organisers of international sporting events. The law still needs to be approved by the parliament where it is facing strong political opposition. The organisers of the 2015 European basketball Championships, the 2018 Ryder Cup (golf), and of the football Euro 2016 would be fully exempted from paying direct taxes. However, it is unlikely that the French organisers of the yearly held Tour de France (cycling) and Roland Garros (tennis) will enjoy the same privilege. Even though the legislation is not specific to the Euro 2016, many critics hold that the main reason for introducing this legislation was to satisfy UEFA’s demands.

Regarding the Euro 2016, a special joint-stock company has been created called Euro 2016 SAS. 95% of the shares of this company are owned by UEFA, the remaining 5% by the French Football Federation (FFF). Euro 2016 SAS is responsible for organising the competition itself, related events, and the promotion of the events.[2] The board includes UEFA officials, FFF officials, and French government officials. According to the French minister, Euro 2016 SAS will be exempted from direct and related taxes (corporate tax, income tax, payroll tax, etc.). VAT, however, must still be paid. Allowing Euro 2016 SAS to be exempted from paying direct taxes comes at a time when most EU Member States, including France, are forced to introduce austerity measures. Interestingly, it also comes at a time when the European Commission is becoming increasingly active in dealing with matters related to State aid and taxation. In February 2014, former taxation and customs union Commissioner, Algirdas Šemeta, stated that competition policy in general and State aid law in particular could “greatly reinforce our tax policy work.” He also said that pursuing cases under competition rules could make a real difference as they can be enforced directly on the basis of the EU Treaty. Since this statement, the Commission has opened numerous investigations into alleged State aid received through tax schemes.[3] These cases include alleged aid provided by Ireland to Apple, aid provided by the Netherlands to Starbucks and aid provided by Luxembourg to Amazon. Last week’s LuxLeaks scandal, concerning specific tax deals offered to multinationals by the Luxembourg State, has put State aid and tax policy high on the political agenda. Our analysis is embedded into this broader context, which is decisive in understanding the potential readiness of the Commission to tackle selective fiscal State aid measures. In the following paragraphs we will engage in a substantial analysis of a hypothetical State aid investigation by the EU Commission into the suggested tax exemption offered to UEFA by the French State.

In order for a measure to be considered unlawful State aid it has to fulfil the criteria stipulated in Article 107 (1) TFEU.[4] However, with respect to tax measures, the key question will generally be whether the tax measure is selective.[5] In this regard, when considering whether a measure is selective, and consequently constitutes State aid, the effects on the market are taken into account and not the causes or aim of that measure.[6]

According to settled case-law, the material selectivity of tax measures should normally be assessed by following a three-step analysis.[7] Firstly, the system of reference has to be identified. The system of reference constitutes the framework against which the selectivity of a measure is assessed. It is a consistent set of rules generally applicable to all undertakings falling within its scope as defined by its guiding principle.[8] Secondly, it should be determined whether the given measure constitutes a derogation from the system of reference insofar as it differentiates between economic operators who, in light of the objective intrinsic to that system, are in a comparable factual and legal situation. In the case at hand one can think of other sporting or cultural events held in France. If the measure in question indeed derogates, it still needs to be verified in the last step of the test whether the derogatory measure is justified by the nature or the general scheme of the system.[9] If a prima facie selective measure is justified by the nature or the general scheme of the system, it will not be considered selective and thus fall outside the scope of Article 107(1) TFEU.[10]  

1. System of reference

The French corporate tax (impôt sur les sociétiés) is a standard tax with a rate of approximately 33% that applies to all resident companies in France and that affects all profits made in France by the resident companies. The guiding principle of the corporate tax system would consist in levying taxes on all undertakings generating profit in France.  

2. Is the measure a derogation from the system of reference?

In principle, all undertakings based in France that make a profit are liable to pay the French corporate tax. Similarly, workers and employers based in France are liable to pay the French payroll tax. The sole fact that a new legislation would allow undertakings such as Euro 2016 SAS to be exempted from paying corporate tax and payroll tax derogates from the abovementioned system of reference. Even if one were to assume that international sporting events are subject to a specific system of reference, exonerating their organisers from all direct taxes, this would still be at odds with the fact that undertakings such as Amaury Sport Organisation (the French organiser of the Tour de France) would not be exempted from paying taxes.  In short, at this stage, the measure seems to be prima facie selective.  

3. Is the measure justifiable by the nature or the general scheme of the reference system?

 A prima facie selective aid measure can still be found justified in light of the logic of the system of reference.[11] It has to be borne in mind that a Member State is free to shape the fundamental aspects of its tax system by determining the taxable situations, the tax rate and tax base. Art. 107 (1) TFEU does not prevent the Member State from introducing, reducing or abolishing a tax in order to further its economic aims.[12] It is, however, for the Member State, which has introduced a prima facie selective measure, to show that it is actually justified by the nature and general scheme of the system in question.[13]

It is likely that the French authorities will argue that the measure was introduced to facilitate the organisation of international sporting events to be held on French territory. Organisations responsible for the choice of the host of an international sporting event, such as UEFA or the IOC, need incentives to select France as a host nation. Yet it is doubtful that this could constitute an acceptable justification for the whole scheme. It would imply accepting targeted fiscal dumping as a viable strategy to raise competitiveness, opening the door to a ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policy. Moreover, this tax policy is not aimed at targeting all sports events, i.e. to encourage the practice of sport or any other objective of general interest. Therefore, the Commission is unlikely to accept that it fits into the nature and general scheme of the reference system.

Nonetheless, the French government still believes that the measure is justifiable for a number of reasons. The former French minister for sport, Jean-François Lamour, admitted that hosting mega sporting events always cost more than they generate, and that those who say the opposite are mistaken. However, he also stated that hosting Euro 2016 would serve as an “economic accelerator that can boost the French economy.”[14] “This tax exemption may shock”, admits another former minister for sport, David Douillet, “but it should be considered as an investment, since nearly 3 million visitors are to be expected”. Moreover, “hosting the tournament creates about 20.000 jobs in the construction sector alone. The measure will allow France to host major international tournaments and ensures that they are not organised only in countries that have the means to afford them. In the case of Euro 2016, UEFA will donate €20 million to the host cities, pay €23 million rental money for stadiums and will participate for an amount of €20 million in shares of the French Football Federation regarding amateur football”[15], says the French minister for sport Patrick Kanner. Lastly, as stated in the introduction, Mr. Kanner also held that “France would never have hosted the competition and the Euro 2016 would have gone elsewhere”, had it not agreed to the conditions set by UEFA. Justifications, such as the ones listed here, may be compatible with EU law if it facilitates the development of certain economic activities where such aid does not adversely affect trading conditions to an extent contrary to common interest. Furthermore, the measures must have a clear objective of common interest in order for them to be justified.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, France has already invested nearly €1.6 billion in the construction and renovation of stadiums and has spent €400 million in access and transport infrastructures for Euro 2016.[16] In Commission Decision SA.35501 Financement de la construction et de la rénovation des stades pour l’Euro 2016, the Commission assessed the public money spent on infrastructure and declared the spending compatible with EU law under Article 107 (3)c) TFEU.[17] The Commission took into account Article 165 TFEU and concluded that the public spending was aimed at a well-defined objective of common interest. It also accepted that there was a public need for the modernisation and enlargement of the stadiums, and that this would not occur without State intervention.

It is important to note, however, that the case at hand describes a different State intervention, namely a specific tax exemption for Euro 2016 SAS. Can arguments raised to justify public spending on infrastructure (i.e. job creation, promotion of France, market failure, cultural, and recreational considerations, etc.) be used analogically to justify a tax exemption? Indeed, there is a direct link between the State’s decision to spend public money in constructing infrastructure and the creation of 20.000 jobs in the construction sector, but not between the legislation allowing tax exemptions and the same job creation. The foregone tax money is not going to be directly re-invested in France, not even in the EU, but is ultimately going to go to a Swiss association: UEFA. The link between the need for the tax exemption and the benefits derived from the EURO2016 can only be made relying on the need to bow to UEFA’s illegitimate blackmail: ‘you’ll get the EURO (and the jobs and exposure hereto tied) only against a fiscal gift’. It is therefore unlikely that the measure at hand fulfils an objective of common interest and would be compatible with Article 107 (3)c) TFEU. 

Usually a negative state aid decision is seen as a backlash for a Member State. However, in UEFA’s tax exemption case, it might be a benediction. It would have positive effects not only for France, but also for all EU Member States, putting a definitive end to UEFA’s blackmailing. A clear precedent would be set and all the organisers of international sporting events taking place in the EU, whether FIFA World Cups, Olympic Games or else, would finally have to comply with tax laws just like anyone else.

[1] Karolina Tetlak and Dick Molenaar, “Tax Exemptions for Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine”, European Taxation, June 2012, page 328

[2] The French government and local authorities, on the other hand, are to provide the sites, infrastructure, public services and transportation. They are also responsible for public safety, and for promoting the country and host cities

[3] Timothy Lyons, “The modernisation of EU state aid law and taxation”, British Tax Review, 2014, 2, pages 113-114

[4] (1) The measure has to be selective; (2) granted through State resources; (3) it has to confer an economic advantage upon the recipient; and; (4) it must distort or threaten to distort competition and must have the potential to affect trade between Member States.

[5]  OJ C 384 of 10 December 1998, Commission Notice on the Application of the State Aid Rules to Measures relating to Direct Business Taxation, para. 3

[6] Case C-279/08 P, para. 51; Commission Decision SA.34914, para. 29

[7] See e.g. Joined Cases C-78/08 to C-80/08, Paint Graphos and others [2011], para. 49; Commission Decision SA.34914 - Alleged aid granted to offshore companies – Gibraltar Income Tax Act 2010, para. 28

[8] Commission Decision SA.34914, para. 31

[9] See e.g. Case C-279/08 P, Commission v Netherlands (NOx) [2011], para.62

[10] Joined Cases C-106/09 P and C-107/09 P, Commission and Spain v Government of Gibraltar and United Kingdom [2011], para. 36

[11] Commission Decision SA.29769, State aid to certain Spanish football clubs, para. 15

[12] Conor Quigley, “The notion of State aid in the EEC” [1988] European Law Review, pages 242 and 245

[13] Case T-211/05, Italy v Commisison, para.125

[14] Euro 2016: pourquoi offrir un cadeau fiscal à l’UEFA? Le Monde, 5 November 2014

[15] La France n’aurait pas eu l’Euro 2016 si elle n’avait pas défiscalisé l’UEFA, Le Monde, 5 November 2014

[16] Ibid

[17] Article 107 (3)c):Aid to facilitate the development of certain economic activities or of certain economic areas, where such aid does not adversely affect trading conditions to an extent contrary to the common interest may be considered to be compatible with the internal market.

Comments (1) -

  • The Complainant

    11/20/2014 12:21:59 PM |

    Great article and analysis. Vestager has just answered a question on this issue during her first press conference. No position yet but she is likely to be looking into it. Let's see whether the previous Commission's cosy relationship with UEFA will continue or come to an end. If it continues, the European Commission will be walking on very thing ice and could have a nasty legal surprise.  

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