Belgium vs “Uniclick B.V.”, June 2021, Court of Appeal, Case No 2016/AR/455

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“Uniclick B.V.” had performed all the important DEMPE functions with regard to intangible assets as well as managing all risks related to development activities without being remunerated for this. Royalty-income related to the activities had instead been received by a foreign group company incorporated in Ireland and with its place of management in Luxembourg.

In 2012, the administration sent notices of amendment to the tax return to the respondent for assessment years 2006 and 2010. The tax administration stated that “Uniclick B.V.”, through its director B.T. and employees M.C. and S.M., invented and developed the Uniclic technology in 1996 and continued to exploit it, and that the subsequent transfer of rights to the Uniclic invention to U.B. BV was simulated. The administration added the profits foregone annually by the “Uniclick B.V.”, i.e. the royalties received by F. from third party licensees less the costs borne by F., to “Uniclick B.V’s” taxable base.

“Uniclick B.V.” disagreed with this and argued, among other things, that the tax administration had failed in demonstrating that the transfer of the Uniclic invention and the right to patent had been recognised by various third parties and was not fiscally motivated. “Uniclick B.V.” further disputed the existence of tax evasion and raised a number of breaches of procedural rules – including retrospective application of the DEMPE concept introduced in the 2017 Transfer Pricing Guidelines.

The tax administration maintained its position and sent the notices of assessment.

The assessment was appealed by “Uniclick B.V.” and the court of first instance found the appeal admissible and dismissed the assessment.

This decision was then appealed by the tax authorities.

Judgement of the Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal concluded that the administration failed in its burden of proof that the transfer prices applied between F. and Uniclick B.V for assessment year 2010 were not in accordance with the arm’s length principle. The administration did not show that Uniclick B.V. granted an abnormal or gratuitous advantage to F. in income year 2009, which should be added to its own profit by virtue of Article 26 WIB92. Since the existence of the abnormal or gratuitous advantage was not proven, it was not necessary to discuss the claim of the tax administration, put forward in secondary order, to determine what an arm’s length remuneration would be in respect of the functions performed, assets owned and risk born by “Uniclick B.V.”

“The discussion between the parties regarding the applicability of the OECD TPG 2017 is legally relevant notwithstanding the question whether it is decisive in the factual assessment (see factual assessment in section 4.3.3 below). The OECD guidelines are intended to provide insight into how the at arm’s length principle can be applied in practice and contain recommendations for determining transfer pricing policy. The OECD guidelines as such have no direct effect in Belgium but are used as a starting point in the area of transfer pricing. From the conclusion of the Belgian State supporting the filed subsidiary assessment, it is clear that the administration bases the valuation of the abnormal or gratuitous benefit at least partially on the 2017 version of the OECD TPG. However, the 1995, 2010 and 2017 versions of the OECD TPG differ in a number of respects and to varying degrees. These differences range from mere clarifications that do not impact on the content of previous versions to completely newly developed parts, namely recommendations that were not included, even implicitly, in previous versions. One of these completely newly developed parts that have only been included in the 2017 OECD TPG concerns the DEMPE functional analysis method as well as the method of ex post outcomes of hard-to-value intangibles, on which the Belgian State bases the subsidiary assessment at issue at least in part. The subsidiary assessment relates to the 2010 tax year/the 2009 income year in which the economic context and the regulatory framework applicable in 2009 had to be taken into account. The only OECD TPG available at the time were the 1995 OECD TPG.

In the light of this, the administration is permitted to base the valuation on the 1995 OECD TPG (which, moreover, as stated above, are merely a non-binding instrument). The administration is also permitted to base the valuation on later versions of the OECD TPG (such as those of 2010), but only to the extent that these contain useful clarifications, without further elaboration, of the 1995 OECD TPG. The 2017 OECD TPG were published after 2009 and to the extent that the recommendations contained therein have evolved significantly since the 1995 OECD TPG, they cannot be applied in the current dispute. In particular, the DEMPE functional analysis method and the method of a posteriori results of intangibles that are difficult to value cannot be usefully applied in the present dispute from a temporal point of view, as these are tools that are only set out in the 2017 OECD TPG. Moreover, this position is also confirmed in Circular 2020/C/35 of 25 February 2020, which summarises and further interprets the 2017 OECD TPG, in which the administration explicitly states in para. 284 that the provisions of the Circular are in principle only applicable to transactions between related companies taking place as of 1 January 2018 (see also EU General Court judgment, 12 May 2021, cases T-816/17 and T-318/18, Luxembourg-lreland-Amazon v. Commission, para. 146- 155).”

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Belgium DEMPE Gent June 2021

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