terça-feira, junho 24, 2008

Belgium - Implementation of the Tax Merger Directive is in sight

Belgium is about to implement the Tax Merger Directive. As a result, Belgian parent companies will be able to absorb their EU-subsidiaries on a tax neutral basis, and EU-parent companies will be able to absorb their Belgian subsidiaries.

The scope of this law is not limited to just cross-border transactions. Belgium has also (rightly) opted to treat national mergers in the same manner as cross-border transactions, so as to improve the tax regime for national mergers. Currently, a merger between a Belgian parent company and a Belgian subsidiary may not happen in a fully tax neutral manner (eg if the absorbed subsidiary has "exempt reserves", these often get taxed; the cancellation of the shares at the level of the absorbing parent company gives rise to a participation exemption of only 95 per cent). Under the new regulations, which will apply in most cases to operations as from 1 January 2007, the taxation of these "exempt reserves" can be avoided and the participation exemption can be increased to 100 per cent.

Therefore, parent-subsidiary mergers implemented as of 2007 will be able to benefit from the more advantageous regime introduced by the new regulation.

The tax neutrality regime currently only applies if the operation corresponds to "legitimate financial or economic needs", a condition which the tax authorities have interpreted strictly. Currently, not only may the operation not be tax driven, but the non-tax reasons must be "legitimate" (and eg may not infringe creditor rights). These non-tax reasons must apply at the level of the company claiming the tax neutrality regime (and therefore not only at the level of the absorbed company or at the level of the absorbing company).

This anti-abuse provision has now been modified, with retroactive effect, to conform with the Tax Merger Directive. From now on, the operation may not have as its principal objective or as one of its principal objectives tax evasion or tax avoidance. If the operation is not done for "valid commercial reasons", there is a rebuttable presumption that the operation has as its principal objective or as one of its principal objective tax evasion or tax avoidance.

In our view, the new regulation will require a change in the existing practice of the tax authorities. Under the new regulation, we believe that the tax neutrality will need to be accepted each time the main goal of an operation is not of a tax nature, regardless of the nature of these non-tax reasons.

This new regulation does not mean that the so-called "post-acquisition merger" can happen in a tax neutral manner. The Ruling Commission has very recently, after consideration, decided to maintain its previous position, according to which a takeover of a Belgian company by a leveraged holding company cannot happen in a tax neutral manner. Such a merger reduces the corporate tax liability as the interest expenses incurred by the holding company are set-off against the operational profits of the absorbed g company. The new formulation of the anti-abuse provision will probably not influence the Ruling Commission's point of view.

Likewise, the transfer of the professional losses regime has been reconsidered (including the "recapture" regime relating to losses deducted in Belgium and in other jurisdiction).

Also, an express tax regulation is being introduced to deal with the tax consequences of a transfer of a registered office to Belgium, not only for transfers of a seat of an SE (governed by the Tax Merger Directive), but also for the transfer of the seat of any foreign company. If the company is established in a tax haven outside of the EU, there will be a disadvantageous tax regime.

Undertakers who wish to transfer shares to a holding company, or who have done so in the past, will be relieved that the earlier propositions (that the contribution of shares would not give rise to "paid-up capital", so that subsequent capital reductions would be taxable) were abandoned. However, the tax authorities have taken the opportunity to overturn the case law of the Supreme Court. Under this case law, the taxation as "miscellaneous income" of capital gains on shares which did not fall within the normal management of assets was limited to the "abnormal" part of the capital gain. Capital gains on shares which do not fall within the normal management of assets are now expressly considered taxable, but a rollover (deferred taxation) is available in case of an "exchange of shares".(...)

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