In his Opinion of 28 February 2018 in VAR, C-14/17, EU:C:2018:135 (not available in English), AG Campos Sánchez-Bordona addressed a tricky preliminary question regarding the procurement of spare parts for buses, trolleybuses and tramways under the 2004 Utilities Procurement Directive (Dir 2004/17/EC). The legal dispute concerned the procedural stage at which contracting authorities must require tenderers to provide certificates attesting compliance with the applicable technical specifications. AG Campos suggested that such phase needs not always be prior to the award of the contract.
This case is relevant in the context of the contracting authorities’ verification duties prior to the award of the contract. In my view, while couched in promising pro-competitive terms aimed at preventing the imposition of disproportionate participation requirements, the approach followed by AG Campos can create legal uncertainty and an irreconcilable functional tension with prior cases such as EVN and Wienstrom (C-448/01, EU:C:2003:651). Therefore, the VAR Opinion merits some critical discussion.
It is important to note that the VAR case has the relevant peculiarity that the contracting authority (presumably) owning a stock of vehicles of a given brand, had specified for the spare parts to be of such named brand ‘or equivalent’ as part of the technical specifications. Therefore, the relevant certificates were not of compliance with functional technical specifications or prescribed technical standards, but rather ‘certificates of equivalence’ between the offered parts and the named branded parts. The contracting authority had indicated in the tender documentation that such certificates of equivalence had to be submitted with the first supply of equivalent parts. As a result, the chosen tenderer was awarded the contract without having provided documentary evidence of the equivalence between the (cheaper) offered parts and the (pricier) branded ones. As could be expected, after the contract was awarded to the competing supplier, the ‘original equipment manufacturer’ (OEM, or owner of the brand) challenged the decision on the grounds that Dir 2004/17 required submission of the relevant certificates pre-award and that the contracting authority could not legally award a contract without having carried out minimal technical compliance verification.
The canonical view
The position taken by the disappointed tenderer that equivalence certificates should have been required prior to the award of the contract represents, in my opinion, the canonical view. Indeed, this was also the position of the Italian Government and the European Commission in this case, both of which held that a systemic interpretation of the relevant rules (ie Art 34(8), in relation to Art 34(3) and 34(4) Dir 2004/17) leads to the conclusion that certificates must be required prior to the award of the contract (see AGO, para 22).
As AG Campos sums up their arguments (see paras 38-41), such systemic/functional interpretation would derive from the fact that (i) proof of technical equivalence is a necessary element for the contracting authority to reach a judgment on which is the most economically advantageous tender amongst those received; (ii) in the absence of a prior verification of the tenderers’ ability to deliver on their contractual obligations, a contracting authority faced with non-compliant supplies would only be left with the option to terminate the contract, which is undesirable; and (iii) given that Art 34(8) Dir 2004/17 solely establishes the exceptionality of the recourse to a named brand and prohibits it except if twinned with the explicit mention of the acceptability of equivalent solutions, the general requirements for verification of technical compliance under Arts 34(3) and 34(4) Dir 2004/17—both of which require pre-award submission of documentation—should be applicable to cases where the contracting authority has made use of the exceptional reference to branded products.
In my view, this reflects the correct interpretation of the rules on verification of technical compliance under Dir 2004/17—and the same logic that remains applicable under the revised rules of the 2014 Public Procurement Package.
An alternate view
However, taking an alternate view, AG Campos suggested that Dir 2004/17 does not necessarily require tenderers to provide—and, implicitly, does not necessarily require contracting authorities to demand that tenderers submit—the relevant certificates prior to award of the contract if (i) the contracting authority has specified products of a named brand ‘or equivalent’, and (ii) it has indicated that such documents need only be submitted with the first supply of spare parts (para 74). The reasons given for this approach—which are flanked by thought-provoking references to the competition law rules applicable to the distribution of vehicles and their parts (not to be discussed in this post)—can be summarised as follows (see paras 42 and ff):
(1) AG Campos considers that the possibility to use a direct reference to branded products ‘or equivalent’ changes the contours of the technical verification to be undertaken by the contracting authority. The rules requiring pre-award verification are justified by the uncertainty or indetermination derived from the discretion conferred to the contracting authority in the way it can set technical specifications (eg by performance requirements alone, or mixed with technical standards). In contrast, “[w]hat explains the singular mention of a trademark, a patent or similar figures (always with the addition of their ‘equivalents’) is that the space of indetermination disappears. When, for example, it is only possible to supply spare parts for vehicles corresponding to a single brand …, or their equivalents, the contracting authority has already chosen to make "a sufficiently precise and intelligible description of the object of the contract". This is the key difference with respect to paragraphs 3 and 4 of Article 34 of Directive 2004/17, which makes it possible to deal disparately with the requirements on certificates of equivalence” (AGO C-14/17, para 43, own translation from Spanish). In other words, the reference to the brand ‘or equivalent’ would have made the technical specifications so precise that no verification of technical compliance would be necessary prior to the award of the contract.
In my view, this is a functionally and logically untenable position. Given that the use of a reference to branded products is only acceptable “on an exceptional basis, where a sufficiently precise and intelligible description of the subject-matter of the contract pursuant to paragraphs 3 and 4 is not possible”, the recourse to the brand can only be considered as short-hand or a proxy for what are otherwise insufficiently precise or inintelligible technical descriptions of the goods to be supplied. This cannot be seen as excluding the need to assess technical equivalence, but simply as setting the technical benchmark against which such verification needs to be carried out—for otherwise, how could the contracting authority make sure that the supplies of anyone by the OEM meet the requirements?
(2) AG Campos also considers that there is a clash of public and private interests that excludes a requirement of unavoidable pre-award verification of technical compliance. Or, in other words, “[i]t is of course legitimate to have the concern not to frustrate the success of the procedure, which could happen if the contracting authority that had not previously required [the equivalence certificates] would find, in the end, that the successful tenderer is not in a position to prove the equivalence of the pieces … That aspiration, however, cannot supersede the essential principles of public procurement, in particular, the need to guarantee bidders have equal access and are not confronted with ‘unjustified obstacles to the opening of public contracts to competition’” (AGO C-14/17, paras 48-49, own translation from Spanish).
This clash of interests between the contracting authority’s interest in carrying out sound pre-award technical compliance verification and the tenderers’ interest in being allowed access to the tender is constructed on the assumption that, for a supplier to be able to participate in a tender requiring the supply of original or equivalent spare parts, it would need to have individualised certificates for each and every one of the spare parts to be supplied (in the case at hand, over 2,000 parts). This would indeed give an advantage to the OEM manufacturer, which is of course under no need to certify compliance with its own technical standards.
However, this seems like an extremely rigid approach to technical compliance verification through documentation, which is only explained by the conflation of qualitative selection and technical verification carried out in the next set of reasons. A contracting authority could have taken a proportionate approach eg by requiring the submission of samples with the tender, together with a certificate of equivalence of the sample parts or sufficient technical information about the sample parts as to demonstrate that equivalence of the contractual supplies would be achieved. That would allow for a non-restrictive design of the tender procedure not requiring the award of the contract without carrying out sufficient verification of technical compliance.
(3) As AG Campos explains in his Opinion (see paras 57 and ff), in the case at hand, the contracting authority was able to award the contract without the need to receive documentation attesting technical equivalence because it had carried out an unduly restrictive qualitative selection by requiring that tenderers demonstrated experience in supplying a high value of spare parts of the named brand or equivalent in the previous three years. Indeed, he considers that “[p]rocurement documentation drawn up in those terms is restrictive, since it circumscribes the circle of recipients to those who have already manufactured spare parts of the [named] brand, whether original or equivalent, which excludes the participation of other manufacturers … the procuring entity, which had already imposed this rigorous conditions, could reasonably rely on them as criteria to assess the technical standing of the tenderers, without having to require them, in addition, to initially provide the certificates of equivalence of the 2,195 pieces referred to in the supply contract” (AGO C-14/17, para 60, own translation from Spanish).
In my view, this determines the existence not of one, but two, breaches of EU public procurement law. First, because the qualitative selection criteria are indeed too narrow and exclude the possibility for other OEMs or other ‘generic spare parts’ manufacturers to tender for the supply of pieces equivalent to the specific named brand on the basis of technical capability and previous experience in delivering original or equivalent pieces of other named brands (or OEMs). Second and on an alternative understanding of the facts, because in VAR the contracting authority would not have actually waived its obligation to carry out pre-award technical compliance certification by accepting certificates with the first supplies, but it would rather have carried out the verification at qualitative selection stage—which does not seem in line with the distinction between qualitative selection and award criteria according to Lianakis (C-532/06, EU:C:2008:40). Indeed, from a functional perspective, it seemed clear that in VAR the contracting authority screened potential suppliers on the basis of their ability to meet the particular technical specifications of the supplies it required, rather than on the basis of general technical capabilities to produce original or equivalent spare parts for buses, trolleybuses and tramways.
By taking the (inadvertent?) position that ‘two wrongs make a right’, AG Campos may have missed an additional important point. In practice, his position would allow contracting authorities to include requirements in the tender documentation that they have no intention of verifying prior to the award of the contract. This runs functionally contrary to the precedent of EVN and Wienstrom. There, the CJEU clearly established that “where a contracting authority lays down an award criterion indicating that it neither intends, nor is able, to verify the accuracy of the information supplied by the tenderers, it infringes the principle of equal treatment, because such a criterion does not ensure the transparency and objectivity of the tender procedure” (C-448/01, para 51). The difficulty here is not that the information cannot be verified at all, but that the information cannot be verified during the tender procedure—which in my view is a logical implication of the EVN and Wienstrom Judgment. Even if I would not support such an approach, this possibility for deferred verification during contractual execution could maybe only change now that contract modification is explicitly regulated in the 2014 Public Procurement Package; but any such logic would not apply to procurement covered by the 2004 Utilities Directive.
Moreover, the deferral of verification of technical compliance to contract execution and award of the contract without documentary or sample-based checks would create two undesirable effects: (i) opening up the possibility of self-certification of technical compliance by the tenderers and (ii) conflating verification of compliance with technical specifications for award purposes and quality control for contract performance purposes, which are not necessarily identical functions and certainly serve two distinct legal aims; respectively, ensuring the objectivity and probity of the award decision and ensuring compliance with contractual obligations.
On the whole, in my view, the VAR Opinion is flawed by a misconstruction of the tests and verification carried out by the contracting authority, as well as by a misunderstanding of the technical simplification expected to derive from the exceptional recourse to branded ‘or equivalent’ supplies. As a matter of principle, contracting authorities should not be allowed to award contracts without carrying out sound checks on technical compliance. They should also not be allowed to defer them to contract execution without more. Contracting authorities should also not be allowed to use technical specifications as qualitative selection criteria due to the artificial narrowing of competition that involves (as clearly stressed, but not thoroughly analysed, by AG Campos in his Opinion).
Therefore, I would argue for the CJEU not to follow AG Campos on this occasion and rather clarify that (i) technical compliance cannot be deferred beyond the award of the contract, regardless of the use of references to branded ‘or equivalent’ products, and (ii) it is for the national court to determine whether the rules on technical specifications and qualitative selection were infringed in the design of the procedure in the case at hand. Otherwise, if the CJEU decided to follow the VAR Opinion, its case law would continue to add internal inconsistencies and unnecessary complexity in this already difficult area of procurement regulation.