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The European Commission has opened an in-depth investigation into corporate tax exemptions received by five major Dutch ports which may contravene state aid rules, and warned that the investigation could spread to other countries.

In May 2013, the EC’s competition authorities asked the Netherlands to abolish exemptions from corporate tax granted to public undertakings, which include the port of Rotterdam, Maastricht Airport and Bank of Industry LIOF, which, it argued, competed directly with private companies both domestically and in the EU and distorted the market.

The order followed a series of complaints against the exemptions.

In response, the Netherlands issued new plans to end exemptions for some public bodies, but explicitly ruled out lifting them for the ports of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Moerdijk, Zeeland and Groningen.

In a statement today, the EC said: “Given that the Dutch authorities have not fully accepted the measures proposed by the commission to ensure compliance with the state aid rules, the commission has now opened an in-depth investigation.

“Cross-border competition plays an important role in the ports sector and the commission is committed to ensuring a level playing field in this important economic sector.”

The commission followed its May 2013 position with a survey of corporate taxes for ports in all member states and added today that France, Belgium and Germany could all also be in contravention of state aid rules.

“The commission has found indications of sectorial tax exemptions for ports or of other sectorial advantages such as reduced tax rates,” it said.

“In certain member states, ports are not subject to corporate tax but to an alternative tax regime that might be more favourable. In other member states, ports do not actually pay any corporate taxes because they are loss-making. This raises questions about whether the public financing of those ports, for example the recurrent compensation of their losses, respects EU state aid rules.”

It added that French and Belgian ports could “benefit from unjustified corporate tax advantages”, and while the commission has established that German ports pay corporate tax, it has also “asked for further information regarding certain ports to ensure they do not receive undue competitive advantages”.

EC competition policy vice-president Joaquín Almunia said: “Fair competition is crucial for all market players. The commission therefore needs to verify that public companies, including port operators, in the Netherlands are not given more favourable tax treatment than their private competitors.

“Furthermore, there should be a level-playing field between ports in the EU, so it is important to make sure that state aid rules are being complied with in all member states.”

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