November 15, 2017 / 5:22 PM / a year ago

Dutch PM to defend tax cut seen benefiting Shell, Unilever, British investors

AMSTERDAM, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte was in parliament on Wednesday for a second time to defend a tax cut that benefits Anglo-Dutch multinationals Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever, as well as British equity investors in general.

Rutte’s unexpected decision to scrap the 15 percent dividend withholding tax has played into resentment at firms that many politicians on the left already view as being taxed too lightly. Populist Geert Wilders has loudly questioned why the Dutch should approve a measure that benefits foreigners.

In a letter to parliament, Rutte said the cut was needed to improve the Dutch “business climate”, citing Britain’s departure from the European Union as one of the reasons behind it.

“In the new international context, it is not self-evident that companies choose the Netherlands as a place to settle,” Rutte said. “To keep and grow employment, the Netherlands must adapt itself to the new reality.”

Experts said the cut could be viewed as part of attempts to ensure that multinationals do not go elsewhere.

“The government is just scared” that Brexit business will go elsewhere, or that in a worst-case scenario, existing multinationals could pull out of the country, said tax consultant Rudolph de Vries of Ernst & Young.

Unilever is reviewing its dual corporate structure to see whether consolidating into either a single Dutch or British entity makes sense. It said it “welcomes measures that improve the business climate.”

Shell, which lobbied for the cut, has said it is likely to scrap its dual share structure as a result.

The existence of the dividend tax is one of the reason why both Anglo-Dutch companies have maintained their odd structures over the years.

In the Netherlands and most other countries, investors are able to offset the dividend tax withheld by the Dutch government against other taxes.

But because Britain, almost alone among developed nations, does not levy any dividend withholding tax, British investors are unable to reclaim Dutch tax.

Shell and Unilever had little choice but to maintain ways to pay dividends directly to their British shareholders to make sure investors there were not disadvantaged.

Unilever says a third of its shareholders are British.

The removal of the dividend tax takes away one reason the firm might not choose the Netherlands as a headquarters if it decides to unify its structure.

Multinationals play a key role in Dutch employment.

According to Statistics Netherlands, they account for more than 2 million jobs, or about 40 percent of all employment, in a country of 17 million people. (Reporting by Toby Sterling; editing by John Stonestreet)

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