A Constitutional Court decision on the retroactive application of tax law changes sends a clear message: as far as the principle of legitimate expectation is concerned, taxpayers' interests take second place to the interests of the public administration. Moreover, taxpayers have no legitimate right to expect that laws will not be changed.
A bank levy will be imposed on all credit institutions with a head office and effective place of management in Portugal, as well as subsidiaries of foreign institutions and branches of institutions with a non-EU head office. Doubts have been raised about the legality of the government order, but in the country's economic state of emergency, taxpayers' safeguards are more likely to be swept aside.
Until recently, Portuguese holding companies enjoyed significant tax benefits, including exemption for dividends received from controlled companies. However, changes introduced - but not adequately explained - by the tax authorities have shaken confidence and reinforced the impression that, in political terms, making a profit remains a sin. Many companies may decide that the Netherlands and Luxembourg offer better prospects.
The State Budget Law for 2011 has been presented and its proposals are under discussion. From a corporate tax perspective, apart from a few benefits granted to non-resident entities that finance economic activities in Portugal, the general purpose of the new regulations is to increase the tax base, which will mean a greater tax burden for companies.
Many experts have claimed that Portugal's grave economic position requires immediate and far-reaching measures. The government has sought to downplay the situation, but Parliament has recently discussed new measures on personal and corporate income tax law, value-added tax and stamp duty.
Recent weeks have seen intense debate over a plan to abolish the full tax exemption regime for capital gains derived from the sale of shares held by taxpayers for more than 12 months. Since the announcement, the argument has spread to the corporate tax treatment of capital gains and to the mutual funds regime, while a Constitutional Court decision has shed significant light on the retroactive application of tax legislation.
As Parliament debates the 2010 Budget, the feeling among critics is disappointment - less at the proposals than at the government's failure to tackle runaway state spending. However, the end of the special regime for small and medium-sized companies, a change to the corporate tax savings threshold, job creation benefits and a bankers' bonus tax - among other things - offer indications of the government's economic thinking.
From January 2010 a package of amendments to the Corporate Tax Code will come into force to reflect the adoption of International Accounting Standards, including measures on credit impairments, the use of the fair value model and the tax neutrality framework for mergers, demergers and contributions of assets. However, the new framework has attracted criticism from accounting experts.
The second phase of Portugal's implementation of the EU Interest and Royalties Directive has begun with the entry into force of a lower 5% withholding tax rate. The rate reduction, the introduction of simplified tax forms and the authorities' improved attitude promise companies easier access to greater benefits.
The government has approved a supplementary budget law which, among other things, introduces new tax credits in a range of sectors and extends the tax regime for Portuguese-incorporated holding companies to certain EU-incorporated entities. However, a muted reaction suggests that not all companies share the government's confidence in the tax credit regime as an economic stimulus.
The proposed 2009 Budget incorporates a new regime for investment companies and funds that provides a range of tax advantages to encourage investment in real estate. Other measures include a two-tier system for company taxation, which is intended to reduce the burden on small and medium-sized enterprises.
The government intends to introduce a new tax to be levied on companies that produce or distribute refined petroleum products, allowing for residential property tax benefits for low-income taxpayers. However, in their haste to take from the rich and give to the (relatively) poor, the authorities have overlooked practical problems that could render the plan virtually ineffective.
A new decree-law on tax evasion has been criticized as disproportionate and imprecise. Although ostensibly aimed at aggressive tax planning, the new regime requires taxpayers to report all abusive practices - that is, any operation which the authorities consider results in an unfair tax advantage. As non-compliance carries a fine of up to €100,000, confusion could prove costly.
The recent reduction in the standard rate of value added tax from 21% to 20% is unlikely to be reflected in reduced prices for consumers and will instead benefit retailers and services providers. The special rate applied in Madeira and the Azores has been reduced from 15% to 14% - particularly good news for companies in sectors such as e-commerce and telecommunications.
The 2008 Budget aims to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) by introducing a new form of tax relief that allows a 3% tax deduction on share capital paid up by shareholders when incorporating SMEs or increasing their capital share. However, the relief is unlikely to solve Portugal's thin capitalization problems, and could even prove detrimental.
Portuguese companies wishing to take advantage of a double taxation treaty have long struggled with the requirement to obtain certification of the necessary Portuguese tax form by the tax authorities of the other signatory state; failure to submit the form or comply with a withholding requirement can mean greatly increased tax liability. However, a proposal in the 2008 Budget may make compliance easier.
The Budget Law 2007 has introduced important tax benefits in strategic sectors of the economy. A tax reduction of between 5% and 10% applies to enterprises in rural areas targeted for economic regeneration, while a regime to eliminate double taxation of outbound dividends paid by entities in Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa will be a considerable investment incentive.
The European Commission has issued a formal request to Portugal to amend its tax legislation on outbound dividend payments to companies. However, changes to the withholding tax rules in the 2007 Budget still appear to discriminate between inbound and outbound payments, leaving the tax authorities exposed to future legal challenges.
A change in the regulations on the taxation of dividends is intended to eliminate the tax advantages resulting from the sale of shares immediately before the payment of a dividend to an entity which benefits from a favourable tax regime. A standardized withholding tax rate on dividends applies, regardless of whether the beneficiary is resident in Portugal for tax purposes.
Changes to the Corporation Tax Code in the 2006 Budget altered the tax treatment of the transfer of a company's head office from Portugal to another country. However, many consider that, by creating a fiscal obstacle to such a transfer, the new measures restrict the freedom of establishment established in the EC Treaty.