EU tax avoidance
A 3.5 metre high money bag with the words '30 billion for Germany' stands in front of the Chancellery during an election campaign branded "Zero tolerance for tax evasion and tax avoidance" by the Social Democratic Party  Reuters

The tax arrangements of some of the world's biggest brands are to come under the microscope, as the European Union launches an investigation into the corporate tax regimes of Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Regulators are expected to launch a formal investigation into the three countries, after months of transatlantic pressure, stemming from US corporations avoiding billions of dollars in tax by routing profits through the three countries named.

A recent report found that almost 50% of Fortune 500 companies have subsidiaries in the Netherlands, where they enjoy a more favourable tax regime. Nearly 35% book profits in Luxembourg, with 30% having subsidiaries domiciled in Ireland.

The report found that Apple booked $111.3bn through two Irish subsidiaries, which "ensures they pay no taxes to any government on the lion's share of their offshore profits".

A US Senate Subcommittee investigation last year found that Apple used a "complex web of offshore entities" to avoid paying income tax in the US.

Last September, the EU started compiling data about tax deals multinationals enjoy in the three jurisdictions, amid accusations it stymies fair competition on the continent.

Other companies alleged to have availed themselves of the tax loopholes include Amazon, Starbucks, Yahoo, Walt Disney, Fedex and News Corp.

Amazon has been criticised in Germany, the company's largest non-US market, for paying income tax of just €3m on sales of $8.7bn in 2012. Accounts showed that it reported profits of just €10m, on which it paid the German income tax rate of 30%.

However, the bulk of its profits (€118m) were reported in Luxembourg where, as part of a tax-exempt partnership, the company paid zero income tax.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny issued a robust defence of Ireland's tax regime in California after intense criticism from the state governor Jerry Brown.

Speaking to dozens of Irish politicians and business figures, who were on a trip that was supposed to bolster Irish trade with Californian companies, Brown said: "I don't know how you got to have Apple to have so much of their business in Ireland, we thought they were a Californian company, when you look at their tax returns they're really an Irish's called creative accounting."

"If we could have Ireland's tax rate, we'd be very wealthy, we'd become an independent country," he added.

"We believe that our legislation is robust, that the application of that legislation is ethical and we will be prepared to defend that very strongly in the event of any further statement or requirement from the European Commission," said Kenny in response.

IBTimes UK could not reach Antoine Colombani, the EU spokesperson for comment.