The European Commission's top antitrust enforcer on Friday defended the regulator's ruling against Apple (AAPL - Get Report) and use of the European Union's state aid rules to go after corporate tax dodgers.
"Giving a specific tax treatment to a particular company gives that company a benefit just as surely as if it had been handed a bundle of cash," Margrethe Vestager, the EC's competition commissioner, said in a speech in Copenhagen. "So the state aid rules apply to tax exemptions just as much as to any other type of aid."
Her remarks come three days after the EC ordered Ireland to recover €13 billion ($14.5 billion) in back taxes from Apple, after finding that tax benefits granted by Dublin to the iPhone maker amounted to illegal subsidies under EU state aid rules.
Ireland and Apple have both vowed to appeal the decision in a process said could take several years but with no impact on its cash balance or future tax rate.
On Thursday, Apple CEO Tim Cook called Brussels' ruling "total political crap" and a "huge overreach that represents retrospective activity and is completely fair."
The verbal tug-of-war continued on Friday with Vestager's comments at a tax conference in her native Denmark.
"The tax treatment received by Apple in Ireland allowed two of its Irish subsidiaries to escape billions of euros in corporate tax," she said. Specifically, she said the company did this by allocating most of its profits - within the company - to a head office that existed only on paper.
"They had no employees, no premises where anyone could work and no real activities," she said. "So the idea that they were mostly responsible for the profits those companies made was completely out of line with economic reality."
She also responded to criticism that the EC was overstepping its reach, saying it is not a tax authority nor is it trying to be one, particularly in recent transfer pricing decisions against Starbucks (SBUX - Get Report) in the Netherlands and Fiat Finance and Trade in Luxembourg.
"We are not trying to second-guess the decisions that national tax authorities make," she said. "We just want to be sure that the transfer prices are not unreasonable."
She also insisted that the EC is not out to make life difficult for responsible businesses that pay their fair share of tax, and said it's the job of public authorities to respond with better tax laws.
"In the end, what we really need to do is to change attitudes," she concluded. "We'll know we've succeeded when businesses stop trying to pay as little tax as possible, and focus on paying the right amount of tax."