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No tax break for bridge, as it's not a sport: EU Court

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No tax break for bridge, as it's not a sport: EU Court

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(LUXEMBOURG) - Bridge is not a 'sport' and cannot be exempt from the EU's VAT Directive, the European Court of Justice court ruled Thursday, though it does come under the concept of 'cultural services'.

The English Bridge Union (EBU) is the national body responsible for regulating and developing duplicate bridge in England. Duplicate bridge is a form of bridge in which each partnership successively plays the same deal as their counterparts at other tables. Scoring is thus based on relative performance.

The EBU organises duplicate bridge tournaments and charges players an entry fee to participate. It pays VAT on those fees. The EBU made an application for repayment of that tax under the VAT Directive. It is of the opinion that it should benefit from the exemptions allowed by the directive in respect of the supply of certain services closely linked to sport or physical education.

This was rejected on the ground that the provisions pursuant to which the supply of certain services 'closely linked to sport or physical education' are exempt mean that a 'sport' within the meaning of that provision must have a significant physical element.

The EBU lodged an action against the decision of the tax authority, which was rejected. On appeal, the Upper Tribunal (Tax and Chancery Chamber), stating that duplicate bridge involves the use of high-level mental skills, asked the European Court of Justice whether it constitutes a 'sport' within the meaning of the directive.

In today's judgment, the Court first made clear that it was being asked not to determine the meaning of 'sport' in general, but to interpret it in the context of the EU's VAT Directive.

The Court also noted that, for want of any definition at all in the directive of the concept of 'sport', that term must, as the Court has consistently held, be determined by considering its usual meaning in everyday language, while also taking into account the context in which it is used and the purposes of the relevant rules.

The Court found that, in the context of VAT exemptions, which are to be interpreted strictly, the interpretation of the concept of 'sport' appearing in the directive is limited to activities satisfying the ordinary meaning of that concept', which are characterised by a not negligible physical element.

While admitting that duplicate bridge "involves logic, memory and planning, and may constitute an activity beneficial to the mental and physical health of regular participants", the Court found that the fact that an activity promotes physical and mental health is not, of itself, a sufficient element for it to be concluded that that activity is covered by the concept of 'sport' within the meaning of that same provision.

The fact that an activity promoting physical and mental well-being is practised competitively does not lead to a different conclusion.

The Court concluded that an activity such as duplicate bridge, which is characterised by a physical element that appears to be negligible, is not covered by the concept of 'sport' within the meaning of the VAT Directive.

The Court did mention, however, that that interpretation was without prejudice to the question whether an activity with a physical element that appears to be negligible may be covered by the concept of 'cultural services' within the meaning of the directive, if the activity, in the light of the way in which it is practised, its history and the traditions to which it belongs, holds such a place in the social and cultural heritage of a country that it may be regarded as forming part of its culture.

Judgment in Case C-90/16 The English Bridge Union Limited v Commissioners for Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs


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