BRUSSELS — The European Union’s top antitrust official opened an investigation Wednesday into the way that countries, including Ireland, provide tax arrangements that enable multinational corporations such as Apple Inc. to reduce their tax bills worldwide.
If it leads to changes, the inquiry, begun by Joaquín Almunia, the EU’s competition commissioner, could undermine the tax strategies pursued by many US technology companies that have their international headquarters in Ireland and in other countries in the bloc.
The inquiry also covers Starbucks Corp. in the Netherlands and Fiat Finance and Trade in Luxembourg.
Ireland has become a preferred place for giant technology companies to place their international headquarters, largely because of concessions from the government allowing businesses to obtain further breaks on corporate tax rates that, at 12.5 percent, are already low.
“In the current context of tight public budgets, it is particularly important that large multinationals pay their fair share of taxes,” Almunia said in a statement. “Under the EU’s state aid rules, national authorities cannot take measures allowing certain companies to pay less tax than they should if the tax rules of the member state were applied in a fair and non-discriminatory way.”
The investigation represents a particular threat to a business model finessed by Ireland, which has used its tax strategies and light-touch regulation to attract major multinational corporations, providing prestige and jobs that might otherwise end up elsewhere in the European Union.
“The company in question did not receive selective treatment and there was no ‘special tax rate deal,’ ” the Irish government said in a statement on Wednesday, apparently referring to Apple. “We are very confident that we will successfully defend our position.’’
Similar tax inducements offered by the Netherlands and Luxembourg are also expected to be examined by EU officials, who have previously said that tax avoidance and evasion in the European Union cost governments huge sums each year.
In March, Almunia’s officials threatened to take Luxembourg to court in a bid to force it to provide information that would allow the officials to assess whether certain tax practices violated the bloc’s rules.
There are no fines in such state aid cases, which are mainly aimed at stopping unfair competition between nations within the European Union. But if the commission finds that illegal aid was given, governments found to have doled out the unfair subsidies can be ordered to recover the money from the recipient companies.
The effort by the EU authorities is part of a global crackdown on loopholes that have allowed giant companies such as Apple and Starbucks to use complex tax structures to pay small amounts of tax on their operations outside the United States. The maneuvers, critics say, allow corporations to operate as virtually stateless entities.
Apple, despite being among the most profitable US companies, has avoided billions in taxes in the United States and around the world through a web of complex subsidiaries, according to US lawmakers.
In another widely cited example, Starbucks has paid low corporate taxes in Britain despite operating several hundred stores in that country.
The Irish government’s handling of corporate taxation has become a delicate matter between Dublin and Washington.