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Bundestag committee hears contrasting stances on German turnover tax

| By Robin Harrison
A session of the Bundestag’s Finance Committee heard fierce opposition from the industry to a proposed igaming turnover tax, but also plenty of support for the proposed levy on licensees’ turnover.
Loot boxes Germany

The 7 June hearing, chaired by Finance Committee chair Katja Hessel, centred around a proposal to amend the country’s Race Betting and Lottery Act (Rennwett- und Lotteriegesetz). The bill would set a 5.3% turnover tax for all forms of online gambling, including poker and slots. 

In effect, this wold lead to tac bills being significantly higher than under the 25% gross profit tax set for in-person gambling. 

Renatus Zilles, chair of industry association Deutscher Verband für Telekommunikation und Median (DVTM), warned that such a high rate would only benefit the unlicensed market. 

As a result of the high payout rates set for online gaming products, a 5.3% levy on turnover would equate to a rate of around 125% of gross profits. This, in turn would require licensees to lower their payout levels, which would ultimately make regulated offerings less attractive to players, and therefore contravene the Glücksspielneuregulierungstaatsvertrag’s (GlüNeuRStV) ultimate goal of raising consumer protection standards. 

Zilles said this would ultimately reduce, rather than increase tax revenue from legal gambling. 

Dr Justus Haucap of the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics (DICE), who has previously warned that a tax on turnover could “doom” re-regulation reiterated his warning. 

He pointed out that there were sufficient options for customers to gamble via offshore sites, such as by using cryptocurrency, without detection. The players most likely to do so, Haucap continued, were the ones the GlüNeuRStV was designed to protect. 

He also pointed out that France, which had previously taxed licensees on turnover rather than stakes, had shifted to a gross gaming revenue model as the previous regime had stunted the growth of the regulated market. 

However Zilles and Haucap’s claims were disputed by a number of testimonies at the hearing. Dr Markus Rutting, for example, claimed that those who would not play the tax would be likely to lose access to the market. He argued that players would be less trusting of unlicensed sites, while licensees would be the only ones permitted to advertise, to shore up the regulated sector. 

Thomas Eigenhaler of the Deutschen Steuer-Gewerkschaft (German Tax Union) supported this view. He said that the industry’s fundamental argument that a high tax rate would lead to a boom in illegal play was fundamentally flawed, and that the rate was actually “rather low”.

He added that comparisons to online gaming tax rates were more complicated than the online industry sggested.

“Online games of chance have a competitive advantage, since they operate with fewer staff and operating expenses, and are not subject to closing times, so it should not be too favourable a tax [rate],” Eigenhaler explained. “In addition to sales tax, land-based gaming pays the municipal amusement tax, which is no longer applicable for online gaming. 

“The effective taxation at these permanent establishments amounts to around €5 for every €100 staked. The new online tax is based on this.”

Munich-based lawyer István Cocron added that the authorities would need to work to ensure operators pay taxes in order for the new regime to be effective. He claimed that despite the current prohibition online casino was a billion-Euro market in Germany, largely due to the fact that there is no effort to prosecute illegal providers. 

However, a transition period has been in effect since 15 October 2020, during which operators that apply the €1,000 monthly limit on players, and limit slot stakes to €1 and remove table games, are allowed to offer products.

Cocron said there was “a big question mark” over whether the providers would transition into paying taxes if it was not supported by enforcement activity. 

Lotto Rheinland-Pfalz managing director Jürgen Häfner, currently chair of state lottery body Deutscher Lotto- und Totoblock, said this would be aided by the new regulatory body currently being set up in Sachsen-Anhalt. 

This body, Häfner predicted, would ensure regulations are respected by the industry, and would ensure the states at least secured returns from illegal operators, including lottery betting companies. This would give German states a share of a market estimated to have turnover of around €700m a year, he said. 

Tax lawyer Dr Ekkehart Reimer did raise some concerns about the scope for disruption, arguing that the reasoning given for a turnover-based model was vague and open to challenge.

This challenge has already arrived, with a complaint filed by the Deutscher Sportwettenverband (DVSW) alleging the online turnover tax constitutes illegal state aid to the land-based sector. The European Gaming and Betting Association (EGBA) has argued the same and lodged a complaint of its own.

Zilles and Haucap said it was “very likely” that the European Commission would support this argument, which in turn could lead to a serious threat to the future of Germany’s land-based casinos and amusement arcades’ futures. 

Tax Lawyer Dr David Hummel disagreed, arguing that there was a basis in law to justify the tax under European Commission state aid laws. However, he warned that despite the simplicity of the scheme, this may not be enough to prevent the offshore market growing – that, he said, would be down to enforcement activity. 

The legislation has been referred to two other Bundestag committees, for legal affairs and consumer protection, and sports. 

Germany’s online slots and poker market is set to officially open from 1 July, when the GlüNeuRStV comes into force. The treaty has already been ratified by all 16 federal states.