European Commission opens formal investigation into Luxembourg’s tax treatment of McDonald’s under EU state aid regulations, December 2015

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The European Commission has formally opened an investigation into Luxembourg’s tax treatment of McDonald’s. Tax ruling granted by Luxembourg may have granted McDonald’s an advantageous tax treatment in breach of EU State aid rules

On the basis of two tax rulings given by the Luxembourg authorities in 2009, McDonald’s Europe Franchising has paid no corporate tax in Luxembourg since then despite recording large profits (more than €250 million in 2013). These profits are derived from royalties paid by franchisees operating restaurants in Europe and Russia for the right to use the McDonald’s brand and associated services. The company’s head office in Luxembourg is designated as responsible for the company’s strategic decision-making, but the company also has two branches, a Swiss branch, which has a limited activity related to the franchising rights, and a US branch, which does not have any real activities. The royalties received by the company are transferred internally to the US branch of the company.

The Commission requested information on the tax rulings in summer 2014 following press allegations of advantageous tax treatment of McDonald’s in Luxembourg. Subsequently, trade unions presented additional information to the Commission. The Commission’s assessment thus far has shown that in particular due to the second tax ruling granted to the company McDonald’s Europe Franchising has virtually not paid any corporate tax in Luxembourg nor in the US on its profits since 2009. In particular, this was made possible because:

  • A first tax ruling given by the Luxembourg authorities in March 2009 confirmed that McDonald’s Europe Franchising was not due to pay corporate tax in Luxembourg on the grounds that the profits were to be subject to taxation in the US. This was justified by reference to the Luxembourg-US Double Taxation Treaty. Under the ruling, McDonald’s was required to submit proof every year that the royalties transferred to the US via Switzerland were declared and subject to taxation in the US and Switzerland.
  • However, contrary to the assumption of the Luxembourg tax authorities when they granted the first ruling, the profits were not to be subjected to tax in the US. While under the proposed reading of Luxembourg law, McDonald’s Europe Franchising had a taxable presence in the US, it did not have any taxable presence in the US under US law. Therefore McDonald’s could not provide any proof that the profits were subject to tax in the US, as required by the first ruling (see further details below).
  • McDonald’s clarified this in a submission requesting a second ruling, insisting that Luxembourg should nevertheless exempt the profits not taxed in the US from taxation in Luxembourg. The Luxembourg authorities then issued a second tax ruling in September 2009 according to which McDonald’s no longer required to prove that the income was subject to taxation in the US. This ruling confirmed that the income of McDonald’s Europe Franchising was not subject to tax in Luxembourg even if it was confirmed not to be subject to tax in the US either.

With the second ruling, Luxembourg authorities accepted to exempt almost all of McDonald’s Europe Franchising’s income from taxation in Luxembourg.

In their discussions with the Luxembourg authorities, McDonald’s argued that the US branch of McDonald’s Europe Franchising constituted a “permanent establishment” under Luxembourg law, because it had sufficient activities to constitute a real US presence. Simultaneously, McDonald’s argued that its US-based branch was not a “permanent establishment” under US law because, from the perspective of the US tax authorities, its US branch did not undertake sufficient business or trade in the US.

As a result, the Luxembourg authorities recognised the McDonald’s Europe Franchising’s US branch as the place where most of their profits should be taxed, whilst US tax authorities didnotrecognise it. The Luxembourg authorities therefore exempted the profits from taxation in Luxembourg, despite knowing that they in fact were not subject to tax in the US.


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