A break on the Commission’s efforts to harmonise tax through the backdoor? Kokott AG in X

Postscript December 2014: the ECJ held on 18 december in favour of The Netherlands. Idem in Q.

Postscript 2 October 2014: the AG opined along similar lines in Q, with respect to a question also referred by the hoge Raad, as follows: ‘Does the importance of the conservation of national natural heritage and cultural heritage, as addressed in the Natuurschoonwet 1928 (Law on nature protection 1928), constitute an overriding reason in the public interest which justifies a scheme whereby the application of an exemption from gift tax (recovery facility) is limited to estates situated in the Netherlands?’

In X, Case C-87/13, the Hoge Raad of the Netherlands asked in essence whether  EU law, in particular the rules on freedom of establishment and on free movement of capital, preclude[s] a resident of Belgium who, at his request, is taxed in the Netherlands as a resident and who has incurred costs in respect of a castle, used by him as his own home, which is located in Belgium and is designated there as a legally protected monument and village conservation area, from deducting those costs in the Netherlands for income tax purposes on the grounds that the castle is not registered as a protected monument in the Netherlands?

Kokott AG opined on 4 September last (the Opinion at the time of writing was not yet available in English) and suggested The Netherlands should be allowed to go ahead with such distinction. She focussed her opinion on the free movement of establishment, suggesting the same analysis applies mutatis mutandis for free movement of capital.

A summary of the Court of Justice’s case-law on the main exceptions to the free movement of capital (and, also per Kokott AG, similarly applicable to free movement of establishment), may be found in par. 42 of Jaeger, Case C-256/06:

According to the case-law, in order for national tax legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings, which, for the purposes of calculating inheritance tax, distinguishes between assets situated in another Member State and those situated in Germany, to be considered compatible with the provisions of the Treaty on the free movement of capital, the difference in treatment must concern situations which are not objectively comparable or be justified by overriding reasons in the general interest.

The Advocate General suggested the Court find the two situations objectively comparable, given that listed property in both countries is likely to be subject to various restrictions. Simply quoting budgetary reasons for limiting the possibility of tax offset to assets in the State of taxation is not enough under EU law. However she did find merit in the argument that the limitation to listed property in The Netherlands, is in the general interest: in contrast with other cases (e.g. Petersen C-544/11), the general interest identified by the Member State concerned, cannot be met by market participants in other Member States (at 41): allowing set-off for maintenance of listed property in another Member State, does not serve the goal of preserving Dutch national heritage, a relevant interest illustrated eg. by the references to national  heritage in Articles 36 and 167 TFEU.

If adopted by the Court, the AG’s Opinion in my view would be very welcome. The EC have been using an extensive interpretation of the free movement of capital essentially to skate around its limited progress in tax harmonisation (which is subject to national veto).

Geert.

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