By Foo Yun Chee and Padraic Halpin
LUXEMBOURG/DUBLIN, July 15 (Reuters) - Europe's second-highest court on Wednesday rejected an EU order for Apple AAPL.O to pay 13 billion euros ($15 billion) in Irish back taxes, dealing a blow to the bloc's attempts to crack down on sweetheart tax deals.
In its order four years ago, the European Commission said Apple benefited from illegal state aid via two Irish tax rulings that artificially reduced its tax burden for over two decades - to as low as 0.005% in 2014.
"The General Court annuls the contested decision because the Commission did not succeed in showing to the requisite legal standard that there was an advantage for the purposes of Article 107(1) TFEU1," judges said, referring to EU competition rules.
The defeat for European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager could weaken or delay pending cases against Ikea's IKEA.UL and Nike's NKE.N deals with the Netherlands, as well as Huhtamaki's HUH1V.HE agreement with Luxembourg.
Vestager, who has made the tax crackdown a centrepiece of her time in office, saw the same court last year overturn her demand for Starbucks SBUX.O to pay up to 30 million euros in Dutch back taxes. In another case, the court also threw out her ruling against a Belgian tax scheme for 39 multinationals.
While 14 billion euros - including interest - would have gone a long way to plugging the coronavirus-shaped hole in Ireland's finances, Dublin appealed against the Commission's order alongside Apple because it wanted to protect a low tax regime that has attracted 250,000 multinational employers.
However, the government is likely to face strong criticism from opposition parties for not taking the cash, which could cover at least half of a budget deficit forecast to balloon to as much as 10% of GDP this year.
The defeated side can appeal on points of law to the EU Court of Justice, Europe's highest court.
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(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Mark Potter)
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