ECJ Blesses International Tax Arbitrage Transaction

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) with its decision in the case C-277/09 issued on December 22, 2010 (RBS Deutschland Holdings) blessed an international tax arbitrage transaction whose final result has been to obtain a credit for input VAT charged on purchase of vehicles while avoiding the application of output VAT on rental payments from leases of those vehicles.

Under the facts of the case, RBS Deutschland Holdings GmbH, a Germany company, purchased cars in the UK through its VAT registered unit in the UK and leased the cars to a UK company, directly and through one of its German subsidiaries. In the UK the lease contracts were characterized as financial transactions, which for VAT purposes are supply of services that are taxable in the country of supplier (in the case Germany). However in Germany the leases where characterized as sales of goods which are taxable in the country of purchaser (in the case the UK).

RBSD claimed a credit for the input VAT paid on the purchase of the cars even though no output VAT was paid on the leases of those cars . The UK tax authority denied the VAT input credit and asked the Court to determine whether the general anti abuse principle embedded in EU VAT law would prevent a taxpayer from qualifying for an input VAT credit in circumstances in which sales are structured in a way to avoid output VAT.

The ECJ held that a taxpayer is not prohibited from exploiting the differences in national tax systems in a cross border transaction leading to a more favorable tax result, provided that the transactions in which the taxpayer is engaged are not entirely artificial and are not entered into for the sole purpose of avoiding taxes.

The Court acknowledge that taxes are a factor that is taken into consideration to determine the final form of a transaction, but when they are not the only factor and the transaction otherwise serves a legitimate business purpose, the final tax result should be respected event when if is predicated on an inconsistent tax treatment of the transaction under two different legal systems.