European Commissioner Joaquin Almunia has dismissed a suggestion that he personally ensured that Athletic Bilbao’s new stadium was omitted from a list of issues to be investigated for illegal state aid.
The European Commission (EC) has confirmed it is probing whether Spanish authorities have given illegal state aid to seven Spanish football clubs, looking at issues including preferential tax rates, cushy land deals and bank loan guarantees.
It had been expected that the reported provision of over 100 million euros in public money towards the building of Athletic’s new San Mames stadium from a number of sources in the Basque Country would also be investigated, but that was not included in the document published by the EC.
Recently appointed European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly had wondered publicly earlier in the week if Almunia -- the EC's vice-president in charge of competition policy, and an Athletic fan -- had a conflict of interest in this case.
However, Almunia said that the suggestion was without foundation and that the EC always acted impartially.
“We Athletic Bilbao fans are very proud of the new San Mames,” he said in El Correo. “But if there were a further reason to look at it relative to state aid we would do that, despite me being an Athletic supporter.”
The investigation will look at possible tax privileges for socio-owned clubs Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna; a controversial land transfer between Madrid’s city council and Real Madrid; and bank guarantees given by the Valencian regional government to local clubs Valencia, Hercules and Elche.
There was also no mention in the document of concerns over Spanish clubs’ huge tax arrears. In total, La Liga clubs owe about 3,600 million euros to various creditors, with about 650 million due in back-taxes. Such lax tax collection by the Spanish government has been criticised, although current minister Miguel Cardenal told ESPN FC last week that the situation was now being taken more seriously.
Almunia said this issue was still being considered by the commission.
“We have looked at these questions about Spanish football clubs having tax debts, we have asked for information,” he said. “While there is no decision [yet] about that, we do not exclude something happening in the future.”