Since Arnoldo Mondadori Editore SpA’s articles of association prevented it from issuing bonds, financing of the company had instead been archived via an arrangement with its subsidiary in Luxembourg, Mondadori International S.A. To that end, the subsidiary issued a bond in the amount of EUR 350 million, which was subscribed for by US investors. The funds raised were transferred to Arnoldo Mondadori Editore SpA via an interest-bearing loan. The terms of the loan – duration, interest rate and amount – were the same as those of the bond issued by Mondadori International S.A. to the US investors.
The Italian tax authority denied the withholding tax exemption in regards of the interest paid on the loan. According to the tax authorities Mondadori International S.A. had received no benefit from the transaction. The interest paid by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore SpA was immediately and fully transferred to the US investors. Mondadori International S.A. was by the authorities considered a mere conduit company, and the US investors were the beneficial owners of interest which was therefore subject to 12.5% withholding tax.
Judgement of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court set aside the assessment of the tax authorities and decided in favor of Arnoldo Mondadori Editore SpA.
The court held that the beneficial owner requirement should be interpreted in accordance with the current commentary on Article 11 of the OECD Model Tax Convention. On that basis Mondadori International S.A. in Luxembourg was the beneficial owner of the interest and thus entitled to benefit from the withholding tax exemption.
“First, the company must take one of the forms listed in the annex to Directive 2004/49; second, it must be regarded, under the tax legislation of a Member State, as resident there for tax purposes and not be regarded, under a double taxation convention, as resident for tax purposes outside the European Union; third, it must be subject to one of the taxes listed in Article 3(a)(iii) of Directive 2003/49, without benefiting from an exemption (cf. paragraph 147 of the aforementioned decision; also paragraph 120 of Court of Justice, 26 February 2019, Case C 116/16, T Danmark; No 117/18, Y Denmark). Nor is the national authority, then, required to identify the entity or entities which it considers to be the beneficial owner of the “interest” in order to deny a company the status of beneficial owner of the “interest” (paragraph 145). Finally, in its judgment of 26 September 2019 on Joined Cases C 115/16, C 118/16, C 119/16 and C 299/16, the Court of Justice expressed the principle that the beneficial owner is anyone who does not appear to be a construction of mere artifice, providing additional indicators or spy-indicators whose presence is an indication of exlusive intent.
4. Now, in the case at hand, it emerges from the principles set out above that the “actual beneficiary” of the interest on the Italian bond must be considered to be the Luxembourg company. And in fact, contrary to the case law examined above, in the case under examination, it is not disputed in the documents that Mondadori International s.a:
1) has existed for more than fifty years;
2) has its own real operational structure and does not constitute an “empty box
3) its corporate purpose is the holding and sale of shares in publishing companies;
4) it produced profits of over EUR 8 million in the tax year in question
5) it issued the bond six months before the Italian company when the latter could not do so and precisely because it could not do so: the two loans remain distinct by virtue of their negotiating autonomy and find different justification
6) the interest received by the Italian parent company was recognised in its financial statements and contributed to its income;
7) it has actual disposal of the sums, in the absence of contractually fixed obligations of direct (re)transfer
8) it issued its own bonds, discounting the relative discipline, placing its assets as collateral for the American investors.
In particular, the breach and misapplication of the law emerges due to the examination of the contractual conditions, duly reported in the appeal for cassation, fulfilling the burden of exhaustiveness of the writing (see especially pages 134 – 136). There are no obligations, limits or conditions that provide for the transfer to the United States of the amounts received from Italy, thus leaving entrepreneurial autonomy and patrimonial responsibility in the hands of the Luxembourg company, which, moreover, has a vocation by statute for corporate operations of this type. These principles have misguided the judgment on appeal, which therefore deserves to be set aside and referred back to the judge on the merits so that he may comply with the aforementioned European and national principles, which we intend to uphold.
5. The appeal is therefore well-founded and deserves to be upheld, with the absorption of grounds 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7 of appeal r.g. no. 7555/2013 and the analogous grounds 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 of appeal r.g. no. 7557/2013, all of which focus on the same question of whether Mondatori Editore is the “beneficial owner” of the payment of interest on the bond loan.”