Bid rigging, self-cleaning, leniency and claims for damages: A beautiful procurement mess? (C-124/17)

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In his Opinion of 16 May 2018 in Vossloh Laeis, C-124/17, EU:C:2018:316 (not available in English), Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona has offered an interesting view on the interpretation of the grounds for discretionary exclusion of economic operators engaged in bid rigging. In particular, his proposed interpretation concerns the limitations of the contracting authority's ability to demand full and unrestricted cooperation from undertakings seeking to reassure them that they have self-cleaned after participating in collusive practices in public markets. This Opinion and the forthcoming CJEU Judgment in Vossloh Laeis will be relevant for the interpretation of Article 57 of Directive 2014/24/EU, as well as Article 80 of Directive 2014/25/EU, on which the case rests. In my view, the Vossloh Laeis Opinion raises difficult questions about the coordination of enforcement of mechanisms to prevent bid rigging in the fields of public procurement and competition law. It also creates some functional tensions with recent cases such as Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469; and Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and RTI Mantovani e Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:1000. Thus, it deserves some close analysis.

Vossloh Laeis - Background

This case concerns the aftermath of an investigation into bid rigging practices by the German competition authority (Bundeskartellamt), which established that '[d]uring the period from 2001 to 2011 Vossloh Laeis concluded agreements with other companies on the supply of rails and switches to the detriment of local public transport companies, private, regional and industrial railway companies and construction companies. The aim of the agreements was to divide up tenders and projects among the members of the cartel'. This resulted in the imposition of a fine of just under 3.5 million euros on the company Vossloh Laeis in 2016 by the Bundeskartellamt.

In the case that triggered the reference to the CJEU, a contracting entity whose procurement is covered by Directive 2014/25/EU (Stadwerke München) sought to exclude Vossloh Laeis from its qualification system on the basis that it had been fined for its participation in the cartel. It is important to stress that the relevance of the cartel for Stadwerke München was not simply remote or theoretical, but concerned it rather closely because this entity had been a victim of the anticompetitive practices carried out by Vossloh Laeis. This led Stadwerke München to seek damages compensation from Vossloh Laeis in civil litigation, as well as to exclude it from its list of approved contractors.

Vossloh Laeis sought to resist its exclusion from Stadwerke München's qualification system on the basis that it had taken self-cleaning measures and should thus be reinstated in the list of approved contractors on the basis of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24, to which the applicable Article 80 of Directive 2014/25 refers. In particular, Vossloh Laeis sought to persuade the contracting entity that it had taken organizational and personnel measures to clarify the facts and prevent their future repetition. It also indicated that it would compensate the damage caused by its illicit behavior. 

Stadwerke München rejected the claims of self-cleaning on the basis that (i) despite the uncovering of the cartel in 2011, Vossloh Laeis had not addressed the contracting entity or undertaken any initiative to clarify the facts as a whole; (ii) only in 2016 had Vossloh Laeis ceased to deny, in front of Stadwerke München, its participation in the relevant collusive practices, and even then it stressed that it had challenged the decision imposing the fine. Most importantly, Stadwerke München took issue with Vossloh Laeis' behaviour because (iii) it had not agreed to furnish a copy of the Bundeskartellamt's decision imposing the fine, so that Stadwerke München could examine it. Neither did Vossloh Laeis agree to cooperate with Stadwerke München in clarifying the infringement committed, since it understood that his cooperation with the competition authority was sufficient.

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion states that '[t]he referring court does not dispute (as it was stated in the sanctioning decision itself) that Vossloh Laeis had collaborated continuously and without restrictions with the German competition authority during the infringement procedure procedure' (para 17, own translation from Spanish). This creates a situation that may seem difficult to understand. Why would an undertaking that has already cooperated unreservedly with the competition authority not take the same approach to cooperation with the contracting entity? Is it a matter of opposition to red tape and duplication of effort? Or is there any secret that the economic operator is seeking to protect? Equally, on the side of the contracting entity, why is it so interested in the nitty-gritty details of the decision imposing the fine? Could it not just accept that the economic operator was sanctioned and is now trying to move on?

The importance of leniency programmes in this context

Even if the Opinion of AG Campos does not mention this at all, the dispute about access to the Bundeskartellamt's decision and Vossloh Laeis' refusal to cooperate with Stadwerke München in a parallel clarification of the facts needs to be placed in the context of the applicable leniency programme run by the Bundeskartellamt, and the civil litigation around the action for damages against Vossloh Laeis. This is important to understand the position of the parties, as well as the shadows that loom over the approach taken by AG Campos (discussed below).

As part of a leniency programme (not only Bundeskartellamt's, but those run by the contracting authorities of other Member States and the European Commission itself), economic operators that have participated in bid rigging offences can seek an exemption or reduction of the fines that would otherwise be applicable if they uncover the cartel and/or cooperate with the competition authority in its investigation (the degree of cooperation and the relevance of the information provided determining the level of 'discount' on the otherwise applicable fine).

In return for their cooperation, cartellists not only benefit from exemption or reduction of the fines, but also from some protection against claims for damages by the victims of their collusive behaviour. Indeed, competition authorities will take measures to ensure that leniency statements are not disclosed to the public, will include minimal parts of them in their final decisions imposing fines, and will redact relevant material from the public version of those decisions. This makes it virtually impossible for 'outsiders' to learn about the detailed ways in which the cartel functioned on the basis of public information resulting from the infringement procedure. Moreover, leniency programmes are specially protected by the Directive on competition damages (2014/104/EU), which requires Member States to ensure that 'for the purpose of actions for damages, national courts cannot at any time order a party or a third party to disclose ... leniency statements' (Art 6(6)(a)) (see also the position of the CJEU here).

This creates significant difficulties in the context of follow-on damages actions, where the previous investigation by the competition authority is of no avail to victims seeking redress. This would explain why Stadwerke München insisted in having access to the confidential version of the decision imposing a fine, and why Vossloh Laeis resisted such disclosure. It also clarifies how, in this specific context, cooperation with the competition authority is of no use to contracting entities and authorities seeking to understand the behaviour of the economic operator, as the opacity surrounding leniency programmes prevents them from benefiting from the investigation and findings of the competition authority. 

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion in its own terms

In own terms, the Opinion of AG Campos seems to be solely based on the conceptual premise that the dispute between Stadwerke München and Vossloh Laeis resulted not from the background discussed above, but rather from the peculiarity of the German rules that transposed Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU, which required that, for the purposes of self-cleaning, economic operators must demonstrate that they have 'fully clarified the facts and circumstances by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities and the contracting authority' (Art 125(1)(2) Gesetz gegen Wettbewerbsbeschränkungen, as reported in para 10 of the Opinion). This deviates from the literal wording of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU, which foresees that 'the economic operator shall prove that it has ... clarified the facts and circumstances in a comprehensive manner by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities'. The analysis in the Opinion, thus, largely rests on the interpretation of the concept of 'investigating authorities' in Article 57(6) with the purpose of establishing whether it covers the contracting authority or entity itself (see para 2). The Opinion offers a good synthesis of the competing arguments in paras 26-36.

In that regard, the Opinion provides some relevant positions. First, that the requirements explicitly listed in Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU are mandatory and, consequently, contracting authorities and entities cannot accept claims of self-cleaning that do not meet them all (paras 40-41). Therefore, establishing the scope of the duty of collaboration in the clarification of the facts becomes paramount because its breach determines the impossibility of benefiting from any other self-cleaning measures adopted.

Second, on the specific issue of the entities included in the concept of 'investigating authorities', AG Campos takes the view that, despite the fact that Article 57 of Directive 2014/24/EU grants contracting authorities and entities some investigative powers, 'the exercise of these functions does not make the contracting authority one of the "investigating authorities" referred to in Article 57 (6), second paragraph of Directive 2014/24' (para 47, own translation from Spanish). In addition to other functional reasons on the way contracting authorities carry out their limited investigation for the purposes  of establishing the existence of an exclusion ground (paras 48-50), AG Campos concludes that, in general terms, 'the "investigating authorities" referred to in Article 57, paragraph 6, second paragraph, of Directive 2014/24 will not coincide with the contracting authorities. In front of the latter, the tenderer (or the company that aspires to be part of a classification system, as in this case) must prove that it has actively and thoroughly collaborated with the investigating authorities to clarify the facts. But this collaboration must be, by force, with an institution other than the contracting authority itself: otherwise, [the collaboration] would be, for the latter, a notorious fact that does not require any proof' (para 51, own translation from Spanish).

Finally, AG Campos also rejects the possibility for Member States to go beyond the scope of the collaboration foreseen in Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU in demanding that the economic operator seeking to benefit from its self-cleaning efforts not only collaborates with the 'investigating authorities' but also with the contracting authority or entity (paras 55-61). Interestingly, AG Campos stresses two main issues against this possibility: (i) that it would create a duplication of obligations required against those who, like the investigating authorities and the contracting authorities, perform different functions and (ii) that it 'could place the economic operator in a situation close to defenselessness when, in circumstances such as those in this case, the contracting authority claims to have suffered damages, because of the infringing conduct that led to the exclusion of [the economic operator], for which it requests compensation' (para 60, own translation from Spanish).

It is worth stressing that the case also concerns issues surrounding the maximum period of exclusion of economic operators that cannot benefit from self-cleaning (paras 62-86). However this post concentrates solely on the interpretation of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

In my view, the Opinion of AG Campos advances a plausible interpretation of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU. However, I would disagree with two issues. First, the fact that Member States cannot go beyond the minimum mandatory self-cleaning requirements established in the Directive on the grounds that this would result in a duplication of effort for economic operators does not make sense to me, in particular after the recent CJEU Judgment in Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and RTI Mantovani e Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:1000 (see comment here), which AG Campos acknowledges but sets aside in his Opinion (para 57). Second, and more importantly, I think that the Opinion of AG in Vossloh Laeis does not work in the context of infringements of competition law covered by leniency programmes, which triggers the second of the arguments against an expansive functional interpretation of Article 57(6) on the grounds of the undertaking's procedural rights.

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion in the broader context of leniency programmes

Indeed, the main difficulty I have with the AG Opinion in Vossloh Laeis is functional. It is worth stressing that the implication of this Opinion is that a contracting entity or authority that knows that it has been the victim of a cartel offence cannot oppose self-cleaning of the competition law violator on the basis of its lack of cooperation, despite being in litigation with that undertaking over damages compensation. From the perspective of the infringer, this also means that participation in a leniency programme not only provides a shield from administrative fines and some protection from actions for damages, but also some protection from exclusion from procurement procedures. These are two negative results from the perspective of ensuring the effectiveness of competition law in public procurement markets and, in my view, runs against the thrust of previous decisions such as Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469 (see comment here).

I also think that the way in which the Vossloh Laeis Opinion frames the issue of defenselessness is artificial. An economic operator that has infringed competition law and received a reduced fine as a result of its leniency application has already obtained a relevant practical advantage. Therefore, I see no problem in making it face a simple choice between either (i) sticking to the secrecy created by the leniency mechanism and thus accepting exclusion from procurement procedures for an adequate period of time, or (ii) waiving that secrecy vis-a-vis the contracting authority (which would implicitly require compensation of the damage resulting from the cartel), so that the contracting authority can form an adequate view of whether the organisational and personnel self-cleaning measures really address the root causes of the past illegal behaviour and, if appropriate, set aside the relevant exclusion ground.

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion allows the economic operator to avoid this simple choice and to have two bites at the cherry. It also makes it difficult for the contracting authority to satisfactorily carry our its limited investigative functions under Art 57(6). Without knowing exactly what happened, it is difficult to judge whether the self-cleaning measures are 'appropriate to prevent further criminal offences or misconduct'. Additionally, it forces the contracting authority to make this decision in a context where it can have other grounds to doubt the economic operators' loss of integrity, such as its resistence to provide damages compensation despite having engaged in illegal behaviour that damaged the contracting authority's interests.

Ultimately, if AG Campos was worried about the existence of a conflict of interest between the contracting authority that has an outstanding claim for damages and at the same time needs to assess the self-cleaning efforts of the economic operator--which is a fair enough point--it would have been interesting to learn about the ways in which Article 24 of Directive 2014/24/EU needs to be applied and interpreted in situations such as this. It would have also been interesting to explore in more detail the extent to which the discrete requirements for satisfactory self-cleaning in Article 57(6) interact as, in the case of leniency-related situations, the lack of collaboration with the contracting authority or entity has a bearing on the extent to which the economic operator can be seen to have 'undertaken to pay compensation in respect of any damage caused by the criminal offence or misconduct'. 

However, by not addressing these issues, the Vossloh Laeis Opinion seems to seek to protect the effectiveness of leniency programmes without even mentioning them, which in my view is an odd position to take.

The false promise of e-procurement portals? A comment on Yukins & Ramish (2018) from a European perspective

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In a very thought-provoking recent paper*, Chris Yukins and Dan Ramish discuss two proposed reforms of US defence procurement law that would reduce access to bid protest mechanisms as an (unintended) consequence of efforts to streamline procurement on the basis of new (?) technologies. They concentrate, in particular, on the proposal to 'launch a pilot program to allow federal officials to buy directly from electronic portals [which] could—depending on its implementation—allow procurements to bypass the normal public solicitation process, and foreclose pre-award protests [the 'section 846 proposal']. The second set of proposals [... the 'section 809 proposal' ...] might radically streamline off-the-shelf purchasing, which again could make pre-award protests practically impossible' (p 4).

In simple terms, Yukins and Ramish analyse the impact that direct access to e-procurement portals could have for the system of checks and balances resulting from bid protest possibilities. As they put it, '[a]s a practical matter, if either initiative ... ultimately means that federal officials will be allowed to purchase commercially available goods and services directly from commercial electronic marketplaces without the prior publication normally required ..., that streamlined procedure could exempt billions of procurement dollars from accountability in the bid protest process. That, in turn, could have serious consequences, only some of which are fully foreseeable' (p 5).

Their paper provides an excellent overview of the relevance of bid protest (or procurement challenge) mechanisms for the proper functioning of the procurement function. It also stresses the relevance that review procedures have in international law--and in particular for the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, and the World Trade Organisation Government Procurement Agreement (WTO GPA)--which is particularly relevant in the context of the on-going Brexit process (for discussion, see P Telles & A Sanchez-Graells, 'Examining Brexit Through the GPA's Lens: What Next for UK Public Procurement Reform?' (2017) 47(1) PCLJ 1-33).

Maybe of even more interest, Yukins and Ramish raise very important points about the potential unintended consequences of the implementation of a policy that relied on e-procurement portals or an e-marketplace for the public sector in terms of the incentives for the exercise of administrative discretion. In their view

Because of the important protections they provide against error and corruption, bid protests have been adopted across the U.S., and indeed around the world (p 1, emphasis added).

... bid protests ... give vendors competing in international procurement markets a means of challenging unfair barriers to competition (p 2, emphasis added).

If the [section 846 proposal] results in direct purchases from electronic portals (thus in practice exempting an entire phase of procurement from protest), these changes would make it easier for officials to indulge in pre-award discrimination and could pose serious questions ... (p 4, emphasis added).

These considerations are best understood under the framework of Yukins' previous work on agency theory and procurement [see 'A Versatile Prism: Assessing Procurement Law Through the Principal-Agent Model' (2010) 40 PCLJ 63-86]. From that perspective, it is clear that pre-award bid protests serve as both a mechanism to incentivise and to discipline the public buyer as an agent. It creates incentives to design the procurement properly and in a pro-competitive manner to avoid the delays implicit in bid protests, as well as to achieve best value for money (which is the prime concern the procuring agent should have, and which an adequate system of rewards and performance evaluation should support). It also deters improper conduct through the threat of litigation (and, potentially, personal liability, depending on the specific features of the bid protest system, and the criminalisation of corrupt practices).

In short, bid protest mechanisms serve to improve the quality of procurement--in particular, through incentives to carry out market research prior to the launch of a procurement procedure--and its probity and integrity--through mechanisms to challenge discrimination and corrupt practices. Ultimately, then, the existence of bid protest mechanisms is in the public interest--even if they are engaged by private actors (disappointed bidders), acting as private attorney general. This does not detract from the need to design the bid protest mechanism in a way that weeds out spurious litigation. However, as a matter of principle, agency theory supports that having a bid protest mechanism is better than not having it.

Against this backdrop, it seems obvious that a suppression of the possibility of pre-award bid protest will erode public interest by creating a risk of both lower quality procurement design and diminished procurement probity. Whether these increased risks are countered by the practical advantages derived from streamlined e-procurement practices may be controversial. However, in the absence of evidence about the redundancy of bid protest mechanisms, and in view of the functional role they serve, I happily sit with Yukins' and Ramish's call not to suppress them in the name of (theoretical) procedural expeditiousness.

The risk of allowing contracting authorities to simply go to the (e)market is that it (re)creates the same problems of misuse of public funds that procurement rules are there to minimise. In every conversation about public procurement, the question arises what are these rules for, and the answer ends up converging towards: 'competition, transparency, and integrity', as proxies to promote value for money and probity [see S Schooner 'Desiderata: Objectives for a System of Government Contract Law' (2002) 11 PPLR 103]. The difficulty with the use of an e-marketplace for public buyers is that, either it is created within the same system of checks and balances of the procurement rules, or the procurement function will be exposed to the shortcomings of inadequate or limited competition (in particular if the gatekeeper of the e-market has a way of extracting rents from willing suppliers) and discrimination or corruption (if there is the possibility for either the gatekeeper or the agent, ie the public buyer, to appropriate rents). More importantly, the monitoring of the 'quality of the marketplace' and its integrity will be eroded by the suppression of the specific mechanisms included in procurement regulation--possibly leaving it all to antitrust/competition law, with its notorious shortcomings in addressing similar issues in platform markets with strong potential for innovation. On the whole, then, the risks created by unbridled access to e-markets are not different from the risks of uncontrolled access to standard markets that justified the emergence of procurement law centuries ago.

In the context of European procurement law, I think that this is an important reflection to engage with. A move towards e-procurement portals and off-the-shelf purchasing would, as things stand and in principle, require the existence of procurement challenge mechanisms at the point of setting up those mechanisms--either as framework agreements or dynamic purchasing systems, or as a result of the intervention of a centralised purchasing body tasked with the creation (and operation) of the e-marketplace. However, there have been recent developments that jeopardise this position, such as the contraction of the concept of procurement in Falk Pharma and Tirkkonen, or the underlying problem that led to the regulation of the activities of 'separate operational units' within a contracting authority for the purposes of value aggregation. These issues raise important questions as to whether the evolution of EU procurement (case) law is also creating an (inadvertent) threat of erosion of the quality and probity of the system whereby public funds are channelled towards the meeting of needs in the public interest.

* C R Yukins & D Ramish, 'Section 809 and "E-Portal" Proposals, by Cutting Bid Protests in Federal Procurement, Could Breach International Agreements and Raise New Risks of Corruption' (2018) 60 GOV’T CONTRACTOR ¶ 138. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3176223.

A Duty to ‘Save’ Seemingly Non-Compliant Tenders for Public Contracts? -- New SSRN paper

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I have published a short paper commenting on the transposition of Article 56(3) of Directive 2014/24/EU  through the 2017 reform version of Article 72 of the Portuguese Code of Public Contracts. I think this is an interesting case study on some of the difficulties that the new provision on the contracting authority's power to seek clarifications can pose in practice--and maybe anticipates some of the future challenges in the development of the Slovensko-Manova-Archus and Gama case law. The abstract of the paper is as follows:

This paper provides a critical assessment of the rules regarding the clarification, supplementation and correction of tenders in procedures for the award of public contracts regulated by the EU 2014 Public Procurement Package. It does so through a detailed assessment of the transposition of Article 56(3) of Directive 2014/24/EU by means of the post-2017 reform version of Article 72 of the Portuguese Code of Public Contracts. The paper concentrates on four main issues: the existence of a mere discretionary power or a positive duty to seek clarifications, corrections or supplementations of tenders and their accompanying documentation; the constraints imposed on such power or duty; the desirability of unilateral tender corrections by the contracting authority; and the transparency given to the correction, supplementation or clarification of tenders. The paper assesses each of these issues against the backdrop of the existing case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, as well as with a functional approach to the operationalisation of the Portuguese rules on correction, supplementation and clarification of tenders for public contracts.

The paper is freely downloadable from SSRN: A Sanchez-Graells, 'A Duty to "Save" Seemingly Non-Compliant Tenders for Public Contracts? - Comments on Art 72 of the 2017 Portuguese Code of Public Contracts' (2018) 2 Revista de Direito Administrativo 59-68.

'Certain cross-border interest' for a public contract cannot be purely hypothetical (C-486/17)

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I am currently-re-reading all CJEU procurement decisions of 2015, 2016 and 2017 for a new book that will consolidate and revise the comments published in this blog and in other papers (more details on this soon), as well as new comments on those cases I did not manage to cover at the time (there are 10 of those). Doing that, I came upon the Order of 23 November 2017 in Olympus Italia, C-486/17, EU:C:2017:899 (only available in FR and IT), which I find interesting because it reinforces the Tecnoedi approach to the burden of proof of the existence of a 'certain cross-border interest' that engages the CJEU's jurisdiction to provide the relevant interpretation of EU public procurement law (for discussion, see here).

In Olympus Italia, the CJEU was sent a request for interpretation of Directive 2014/24/EU and, in particular, in relation to the regulation of negotiated procedures and the possibility for tenderers to amend their tenders in that context. However, the CJEU rejected the request on the basis that the referring court had provided insufficient information to establish the existence of a certain cross-border interest in a contract for an "all-hazards" technical assistance service for flexible endoscopes and machines used for washing such devices. 

As justification for the rejection of the case, the CJEU stressed that

... the objective criteria which may indicate certain cross-border interest ... may be, in particular, the fact that the contract in question is for a significant amount, in conjunction with the place where the work is to be carried out or the technical characteristics of the contract and the specific characteristics of the products concerned. In that context, it is also possible to take account of the existence of complaints brought by operators situated in other Member States, provided that it is determined that those complaints are real and not fictitious...

...  a conclusion that there is certain cross-border interest cannot be inferred hypothetically from certain factors which, considered in the abstract, could constitute evidence to that effect, but must be the positive outcome of a specific assessment of the circumstances of the contract at issue. More particularly, the referring court may not merely submit to the Court of Justice evidence showing that certain cross-border interest cannot be ruled out but must, on the contrary provide information capable of proving that it exists ...

In the present case, it is common ground, that the amount of the public contract at issue in the main proceedings amounts to EUR 85,000, which is considerably below the thresholds for application laid down in Article 4 of Directive 2014/24 ... On the other hand, in its reference for a preliminary ruling, the referring court has not provided any information enabling the Court to ... demonstrate the existence of a certain cross-border interest ... In those circumstances, the Court finds itself unable to provide a useful answer to the question raised... (C-486/17, paras 17-22, references omitted, own translation from French and emphasis added).

I find the Olympus Italia case interesting (and potentially worrying) if it is indicative of the willingness of the CJEU to avoid answering preliminary references on the basis of the absence of irrefutable proof of the existence of cross-border interest. I think that there have been plenty other cases where the CJEU was unable to establish this and, in any case, it provided an answer on the premise that the referring court would first have to assess whether such cross-border interest existed (for recent examples, see eg the 2015 Judgments in UNIS, C-25/14, EU:C:2015:821; or Enterprise Focused Solutions, C-278/14, EU:C:2015:228). If the CJEU is using the (evidence of the) existence of a certain cross-border interest as a 'docket-management' device, we can only expect further distortions of the case law in an area that is not precisely clear...

No obligation to revise prices payable under public contracts. OK, but for the wrong reasons? (C-152/17)

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In its recent Judgment of 19 April 2018 in Consorzio Italian Management e Catania Multiservizi,
C-152/17, EU:C:2018:264, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified that EU public procurement law (in this case, the 2004 Utilities Directive) does not create an obligation to review prices after the award of a public services contract. This seems largely uncontroversial, not least due to the lack of concern of the pre-2014 EU procurement rules with contract execution. However, the reasons given by the CJEU to exclude mandatory price revision and, beyond that, the mistrust it places on price review clauses, are dubious. The way in which the CJEU refers back to Finn Frogne (see here) should also set off some alarm bells.

The case at hand (N.B. Defective English version of the Judgment)

In this case, Rete Ferroviaria Italiana (RFI) had awarded a services contract to Consorzio Italian Management and Catania multiservizi (CIMCM) for the cleaning, maintenance and ancillary services at stations, installations, offices and workshops at various sites throughout the region of Cagliari. The contract included a clause limiting price review. Despite that, and as a result of increasing staff costs, CIMCM requested RFI to review the prices payable under the contract (ie the claim seemed to be a statutory claim contra the explicit terms of the public contract). RFI rejected the request for the price revision, which triggered the underlying dispute. Establishing the legal architecture underlying the claim requires some legal funambulism.

The award of the contract had been subject to the rules of the 2004 Utilities Directive, as well as domestic law transposing it. At the relevant time, the Italian procurement code (Legislative Decree No 163/2006) established that in 'the absence of any express provisions' in the procurement rules, the Italian Civil Code (Codice Civile, CC) would provide default rules for contractual arrangements between contracting authorities or entities and their contractors. It is important to clarify that the Italian procurement code had a two-tier approach whereby it established a full regime applicable to general procurement (tier 1) and then specified a sub-set of rules applicable to utilities procurement (tier 2, Art 206 Legislative Decree No 163/2006). Tier 2 set a numerus clausus of provisions applicable to contracts linked to the activities referred to in Articles 3 to 7 of the 2004 Utilities Directive.

Concerning the review of contractual prices, Art 115 of the Italian procurement code established that '[a]ll contracts for the supply of goods or services on an ongoing basis must include a clause providing for periodic review of the price'. This provision was however inapplicable to public contracts in the utilities sectors [N.B. despite the English version of the Judgment (para 11), where it is indicated that 'Article 115 of that Legislative Decree was one of the provisions which, under Article 206 thereof, were applicable to public contracts', this is contradicted by eg the French ('L’article 115 de ce décret législatif ne figurait pas ...') and Italian ('L’articolo 115 di tale decreto legislativo non era indicato ...') versions of the Judgment, as well as the logic of the decision]. It is thus worth taking into account that, where Art 115 was not applicable, the default rule in the Italian Civil Code would provide for price revision linked to circumstances of 'hardship' (ie cost increases above 10% of the overall price agreed; Article 1664 CC).

The dispute between CIMCM and RFI is fundamentally concerned with a domestic issue of contractual and statutory interpretation. However, given that the scope of application of the domestic rules is pegged to the scope of application of the 2004 Utilities Directive, it acquired EU relevance.

At first instance, the challenge was dismissed by the regional administrative tribunal on the basis that 'the supply of cleaning services at stations, installations, offices and workshops was ancillary to the performance of activities covered by special sectors, in that those services related to elements forming an essential part of the rail transport network' (C-152/17, para 16, emphasis added). This justified the subjection of the contract to the tier 2 procurement regime, and thus excluded the mandatory price review clause of Art 115 of the Italian procurement code. Beyond that, the regional administrative court reached the additional finding that 'price review was not mandatory under Article 1664 of the Civil Code, as the parties to a contract may derogate from that provision by inserting in the contract a contract term limiting price review, which was the case in the main proceedings' (ibid). 

Given the implicit reference to Art 5 of the 2004 Utilities Directive in terms of scoping the applicability of the relevant rules, which was challenged in the appeal of the first instance decision, the dispute required clarification from the CJEU. Moreover, the claimants raised a challenge of validity against the 2004 Utilities Directive by arguing that, should it allow for the award of contracts excluding price revision, it would infringe Articles 3(1) TEU, Articles 26, 56 to 58 and 101 TFEU, and Article 16 of the Charter, ‘in the light of the unfairness, disproportionality and distortion of contractual balance and, therefore, of the rules governing an efficient market’ (C-152/17, para 19). The reasoning of the CJEU on these two matters (scope of application and validity of the 2004 Utilities Directive) is interesting.

Functional scope of application

The issue here seems simply to require an understanding of the functional approach followed b y the CJEU in determining the scope of application of the 2004 Utilities Directive. In that regard, the CJEU stressed that

... as regards the interpretation of Directive 2004/17 and of the underlying general principles, the referring court considers that the contract at issue in the main proceedings falls within the scope of that directive, since it was awarded by a contracting authority within the meaning of that directive, namely RFI, and that it is functionally linked to rail transport operations falling within the scope of that directive.

In that regard, it follows from the Court’s case-law that Directive 2004/17 in fact applies not only to contracts awarded in the sphere of one of the activities expressly listed in Articles 3 to 7 thereof, but also to contracts which, even though they are different in nature and could as such normally fall within the scope of Directive 2004/18/EC ..., are used in the exercise of activities defined in Directive 2004/17. Consequently, where a contract awarded by a contracting entity is connected with an activity which that entity carries out in the sectors listed in Articles 3 to 7 of that directive, that contract is subject to the procedures laid down in that directive (C-152/17, paras 25-26, references omitted and emphasis added).

This creates the functional criterion that ancillary activities are covered by the Utilities procurement regime because, as a matter of determining the scope of the activities listed in Arts 3 to 7 of Dir 2004/17, EU procurement law also comprises ancillary activities.

No 'EU law' obligation to revise prices

Beyond that, the CJEU also stressed that 

... it is not apparent from any provision of that directive that it must be interpreted as precluding rules of national law, such as Article 115, in conjunction with Article 206, of Legislative Decree No 163/2006, which do not provide for periodic review of prices after contracts are awarded in the sectors covered by the directive, since the latter does not impose any specific obligation on Member States to lay down provisions requiring the contracting entity to grant its contractual partner an upwards review of the price after the contract has been awarded (C-152/17, para 29, emphases added)

In my view, this is correct, and there is no question that the 2004 Utilities Directive did not create an 'EU law' obligation to include contract review clauses. However, the reasons given by the CJEU on the basis of the general principles of procurement should raise some eyebrows. Indeed, the CJEU found that

... the general principles underlying Directive 2004/17, in particular the principle of equal treatment and the consequent obligation of transparency enshrined in Article 10 of that directive do not preclude such rules either. On the contrary, it cannot be ruled out that a price review after the contract has been awarded may run counter to that principle and that obligation (see, by analogy, judgment of 7 September 2016, Finn Frogne, C‑549/14, EU:C:2016:634, paragraph 40). Indeed, as the Commission points out in its written observations, the contract price is an element of great importance in the assessment of tenders by a contracting entity, as well as in its decision to award the contract to an operator. This is also clear from the reference to the price in both of the criteria for the award of contracts mentioned in Article 55(1) of Directive 2004/17. In those circumstances, rules of national law which do not provide for periodic price review after the award of contracts in the sectors covered by that directive are, in fact, likely to encourage compliance with those principles.

It follows from those considerations that Directive 2004/17 and the general principles that underlie it are to be interpreted as not precluding national rules, such as those at issue in the main proceedings, which do not provide for periodic price review after a contract has been awarded in the sectors covered by that directive (C-152/17, paras 30-31, emphases added).

Wrong reasons?

The reasoning of the CJEU is certainly hard to share, in particular in view of the precise reasoning of Finn Frogne--unless read in an extreme manner. It is also hard to reconcile with Art 72(1)(a) of Directive 2014/24 and Art 89(1)(a) of Directive 2014/25.

The reasoning of the CJEU is hard to reconcile with the fact that the relevant Italian rules (Art 115) established that price revision clauses had to be included in the relevant contract (but did not prescribe their content) and had to establish that the price 'revision shall be carried out on the basis of an investigation by the managers responsible for the acquisition of goods and services on the basis of the data' regulated in other parts of the Italian procurement code (C-152/17, para 11). How this is incompatible with Finn Frogne is beyond me, as the Court stated there that the position that 'following the award of a public contract, a material amendment cannot be made to that contract without a new tendering procedure ... would be different only if the contract documents provided for the possibility of adjusting certain conditions, even material ones, after the contract had been awarded and fixed the detailed rules for the application of that possibility' (C-549/14, para 40, emphasis added). Two thoughts come to mind here. First, that a review clause compliant with Art 115 of the Italian procurement code would meet precisely the requirements of Finn Frogne. Second, that the issue whether the exclusion or limitation of price review under the specific contract was allowable rested solely on the point of determination of the scope of application of the 2004 Utilities Directive, so why did the CJEU feel the need to include this obiter dictum?

Looking forward, it is difficult to understand what the CJEU has in mind concerning equal treatment, transparency and price revision clauses. While in Finn Frogne --and, incidentally, in Art 72(1)(a) of Directive 2014/24 and Art 89(1)(a) of Directive 2014/25-- the position is that contractual price revision clauses are perfectly compliant with EU procurement rules and the principles of transparency and equal treatment; in Consorzio Italian Management the CJEU seems to be of the opposite view and stress that 'rules of national law which do not provide for periodic price review after the award of contracts ... are, in fact, likely to encourage compliance with those principles' (C-152/17, para 30). Of course, taken in isolation, both approaches make sense, but I would struggle to reconcile them if there was a claim that a contractual price revision clause was discriminatory because it either had different impact on different potential contractors, or because its interpretation could favour some suppliers over others. What is more objective, to have a contractual price review clause or not to have it? In addition, what is the problem with having legislative requirements for those clauses, as was the case in Art 115 of the Italian procurement code?

What about Art 16 of the Charter?

Another point worth mentioning is the CJEU's approach to the analysis of the compatibility of the inexistence of a right to price revision with Art 16 of the Charter, enshrining the freedom to conduct a business. Here, it would seem possible to expect from the CJEU an analysis of whether the inexistence of such a right as a matter of EU law is in compliance with the Charter. However, the CJEU refused to answer that question on the grounds that it was hypothetical (see paras 37-40). However, the CJEU did engage on the analysis of compatibility within the context of the first question, and almost as a matter of jurisdictional rather than substantive analysis. In that regard, the CJEU stressed that

... as regards the interpretation of Article 16 of the Charter, it must be recalled that, under Article 51(1) of the Charter, its provisions are addressed to the Member States only when they are implementing EU law. Under Article 51(2) of the Charter, the Charter does not establish any new power or task for the Union, or modify powers and tasks as defined in the Treaties. Accordingly, the Court is called upon to interpret EU law, in the light of the Charter, within the limits of the powers conferred on it ...

In that regard, it should be borne in mind that the concept of ‘implementing Union law’ within the meaning of Article 51 of the Charter presupposes a degree of connection between the measure of EU law and the national measure at issue. In particular, the Court has ruled that fundamental European Union rights could not be applied in relation to national legislation because the provisions of EU law in the area concerned did not impose any specific obligation on Member States with regard to the situation at issue in the main proceedings ...

In the present case, since it is apparent from paragraphs 29 and 30 above that neither Directive 2004/17 nor its underlying general principles impose on Member States a specific obligation to lay down provisions requiring the contracting entity to grant its contractual partner an upwards price review after the award of a contract, the provisions of Legislative Decree No 163/2006 at issue in the main proceedings, in so far as they do not provide for periodic price review within the sectors covered by that directive, do not have any connection with that directive and cannot, therefore, be regarded as implementing EU law (C-152/17, paras 33-35, references omitted and emphases added).

First, it is worth stressing that it is hard to imagine a legal strategy that will make the CJEU engage with the compatibility of secondary EU legislation with the Charter, in particular in relation to the absence of guarantees, as compared to its review concerning positive obligations for the addressees of the domestic implementing measures. Normatively, this is undesirable for the limited engagement the CJEU shows with substantive Charter-based analysis. And even from a positive perspective, this approach is criticisable. I find the CJEU's logic puzzling.

In a situation (maybe different from the case at hand, where the absence of the price revision guarantee ultimately results from a rule on the delimitation of applicable EU law regimes, rather than the direct implementation of a specific, single regime) where the claim was that the domestic rules implementing EU law failed to create a Charter-compliant (or rather Charter-mandated) guarantee not imposed by the implemented Directive, the CJEU would probably also take this route and argue that the absence of creation of an obligation at domestic level which is not required by EU rules is not connected with the EU rules in a manner that triggers the analysis of compatibility with the Charter. Would this make sense? I would not think so, but I guess we will have to wait for the relevant case to see whether the CJEU sticks to this analysis.

Can Member States prohibit or restrict the use of in-house arrangements? [guest post* by Dr Deividas Soloveičik]

This new guest post by Dr Deividas Soloveičik provides interesting background on another reference for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU by the Supreme Court of Lithuania. On this occasion, the case raises interesting questions around the balance between procurement and competition law, but also about the regulatory and self-organisation space left to Member States in the context of the EU regulation of in-house provision arrangements. It will be interesting to keep an eye on the case, as it brings an opportunity for the CJEU to expand its case law after its recast in eg Art 12 of Directive 2014/24/EU.

NOTHING LEFT TO SAY ABOUT THE IN-HOUSE EXEMPTION? THINK TWICE

On April 13, 2018 the Supreme Court of Lithuania (SCoL) decided to stay proceedings and refer a question for preliminary ruling to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in a case that raises new questions related to the in-house exemption (civil case No. e3K-3-120-469/2018). This time, the SCoL wishes to find out if Member States are allowed to limit or even ban the use of the in-house exemption, as is the case in Lithuania. Besides, the SCoL seeks clarification on the balance to be struck between public procurement and competition law. In particular, the SCoL wishes to know whether the in-house exemption may be applicable where the same supply of goods or services can be delivered by the market. In other words, whether the contracting authority can buy in-house when there is available supply in the market. These are challenging issues and the CJEU’s views will be much awaited. Before providing an overview of the facts of the case, it is worth noting the Lithuanian legal background, which influenced the decision of the SCoL to refer the case to the CJEU, as well as the whole legal problem.

Lithuanian legal background

The in-house exemption has been regulated in the public procurement law of Lithuania since 2010. The criteria for its use were those set by the CJEU in Teckal and the subsequent case-law on the subject. Since then, in-house contracts became very common in particular at local level. Many contracting authorities and entities used them with their controlled companies, and in many cases the exemption became the general rule. However, this practice became both a legal problem and a national political scandal when it was noticed that the in-house exception was implemented in order to support a modus operandi whereby contracting authorities used the in-house exemption to award contracts to their subsidiaries, so that the latter did not have to hold themselves as contracting authorities and could thus buy services and supplies from the market like private operators. This created a situation where contracting authorities circumvented the public procurement rules just by using an intermediary (their subsidiaries) that triggered the in-house exemption. This practice even generated the Litspecmet case (C-567/15, EU:C:2017:736), already decided by the CJEU (see a comment here).

As a result of these abuses, the implementation of the 2014 EU Public procurement directives led Lithuania to practically ban the in-house mechanism. The new Lithuanian procurement law states that any governmental authority and / or private companies directly controlled or owned by the State shall have no right to enter into in-house agreements of whatsoever nature. Other contracting authorities, such as municipalities and their controlled companies, have the privilege of the in-house exemption. However, this only applies in cases when there is either (i) no supply from the market, or (ii) there are no possibilities to buy good quality in a way that guarantees the quality, availability or continuity of the services and (iii) if the awardee is a contracting authority itself. Moreover, the Competition Council became very active in tracing each contracting authority that uses the in-house exception and seeking the judicial repeal of such agreements on the basis of the Law on competition, which inter alia states that neither the State, governmental or other official authorities may have any privilege against any other market player (ie sets out a principle of competitive neutrality). Therefore, in fact, on the few occasions where in-house agreements are not forbidden by the Lithuanian Law on public procurement, they will most likely be challenged by the Competition Council on the basis of the Lithuanian Law on competition. Thus, in practice the possibility for the award of public contracts in-house is either excluded or very risky.

The Irgita case

In the case the SCoL has now referred to the CJEU, a Municipality concluded a public contract for the upkeep of green areas with economic operator Irgita. It was specified in the contract that the volume of services was a maximum and that the contracting authority was not obliged to buy all the services. The Municipality was to solely pay for the services actually provided according to the rates specified in the contract. Thus, the final price payable to the service provider depended on the volume of services rendered by the latter. In case the services required by the contracting authority exceeded the maximum amount specified in the contract, a separate procurement would be arranged.

Later on, the contracting authority approached the Public Procurement Office in order to get approval to conclude an in-house contract regarding the same services with another economic operator that (i) is a contracting authority itself, (ii) is controlled by the contracting authority (Municipality) and (iii) receives 90 percent of its income from the contracting authority (Municipality). Such approval was granted, and the contracting authority concluded the in-house contract with its controlled economic operator.

After the in-house contract was concluded, Irgita filed a claim by which it argued that the decision of the Municipality was unlawful, on the basis of the following arguments: (i) the contracting authority was not in a position to enter into the in-house contract because, at the time of its conclusion, the public contract with the claimant was still in force; (ii) the disputed decision and the in-house contract did not meet the requirements set in the Law on public procurement and the Law on competition of Lithuania, as it distorts free and fair competition between economic operators because the contracting authority’s contractual partner is being granted privileges while the other (private) economic operators are being discriminated against.

The court of first instance did not establish a breach of competition, while the Court of Appeals considered that the in-house contract was unlawful, in particular because it reduced the volume of services available for provision by Irgita in the first place. In deciding to refer the case to the CJEU, the SCoL started its reasoning by the stating that this was the first time it had an opportunity to examine the balance between public procurement and competition law in the context of in-house arrangements. The SCoL found that it was very likely that the concept of in-house agreement in the realm of public procurement law was a category of EU law and thus not open to separate interpretation under national legislation. If that was the case, then it would be very dubious that Member States were entitled to limit the right of the contracting authority to engage in this kind of transactions.

The SCoL held that:

  • The CJEU has substantiated the in-house doctrine as an exemption from compliance with otherwise applicable public procurement requirements;
  • The CJEU has repeatedly held that since the concept of a public contract does not refer to the national legal regulation of the Member States, the notion and the whole concept of in-house agreement must be regarded as falling exclusively within the scope of EU law and must be interpreted without regard to national law (Jean Auroux Case, C-220/05). In this matter, the SCoL stated that CJEU case-law implies a possibility of treating the in-house exemption as an independent legal norm of EU law;
  • From the case-law of the CJEU, it is clear that the in-house exemption does not infringe the rights of private economic operators, they are not discriminatory, because the economic operators controlled by the contracting authorities do not enjoy any privileges (Sea, C-573/07; Carbotermo ir Consorzio Alisei, C-340/04; Undis Servizi, C-553/15). In other words, the SCoL emphasized that if it is deemed that the in-house agreements are legitimate, then it hardly can be that they limit and distort the competition in all cases. Otherwise, they would not be allowed pursuant to the long-standing jurisprudence of the CJEU.

On the basis of the above-mentioned considerations, the SCoL considered that there is a need to address the following questions to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling:

1.    In circumstances such as those in the present case, where the procedure for the conclusion of the in-house contract was initiated under Directive 2004/18, but the contract itself was concluded on 19 May 2016, does the in-house contract fall within the scope of Directive 2014/18 or Directive 2014/24 in case of an invalidity?

2.    Assuming that the disputed in-house contract falls within the scope of Directive 2004/18:

(a)  must Article 1(2)(a) of this Directive (but not limited to this provision), in accordance with the judgments of the CJEU in Teckal (C-107/98), Jean Auroux and Others (C-220/05) and ANAV (C-410/04) etc be understood and interpreted in such a way that the concept of in-house falls within the scope of EU law and the content and application of that concept is not affected by the national law of the Member States, inter alia, restrictions on the conclusion of such contracts, such as the condition that public service contracts cannot guarantee the quality, availability or continuity of the services provided?

(b)  If the answer to the preceding question is negative, i.e. the concept of in-house in part or in full falls within the scope of the national law of the Member States, is the abovementioned provision of the Directive 2004/18 to be interpreted as meaning that the Member States have the discretion to impose restrictions or additional conditions for the establishment of the in-house contract (in comparison with EU law and the interpretation of the CJEU case-law), but it can be implemented only by specific and clear rules of the substantive law on public procurement ?

3.    Assuming that the disputed in-house contract falls within the scope of Directive 2014/24:

(a)    must Article 1(4), Article 12 and Article 36 of the Directive, jointly or severally (but not limited to), in accordance with the judgments of the CJEU in Teckal (C-107/98), Jean Auroux and Others (C-220/05) and ANAV (C-410/04) etc be understood and interpreted in such way that the concept of in-house falls within the scope of EU law and that the content and application of this concept are not affected by the national law of the Member States, inter alia, restrictions on the conclusion of such contracts, such as the condition that public service contracts cannot guarantee quality, availability or continuity of the services provided?

(b)    If the answer to the preceding question is negative, i.e. the concept of in-house is partly or fully covered by the national law of the Member States, must the provisions of Article 12 of Directive 2014/24 be interpreted in such way that the Member States have the discretion to impose restrictions or additional conditions for the establishment of in-house contracts (in comparison with EU law and the interpretation of the CJEU case-law), but it can be implemented only by specific and clear rules of the substantive law on public procurement?

4.    Irrespective of which of the directives covers the in-house contracts, must the principles of equality, non-discrimination and transparency (Article 2 of the Directive 2004/18, Article 18 of Directive 2014/24), the general prohibition of discrimination on grounds of nationality (Article 18 TFEU), freedom of establishment (Article 49 TFEU) and freedom to provide services (Article 56 TFEU), the possibility of granting exclusive rights to undertakings (Article 106 TFEU), and the case-law of the CJEU (Teckal, ANAV, Sea, Undis Servizi etc) be understood and interpreted as meaning that an in-house contract concluded by a contracting authority and another distinct legal entity which is controlled by the contracting authority in a manner similar to its own departments and where part of such legal entity’s activities is in the interest of the contracting authority, is per se lawful, and that it does not infringe the rights of the other economic operators to fair competition, to not being discriminated against and for no privileges to be provided to the controlled legal entity that has concluded the in-house contract?

The enquiry made by the SCoL shows that it basically wishes to clarify a few very interesting and important legal points, which will influence the development of the in-house exception. Firstly, the SCoL tries to understand whether the in-house exemption is an autonomous concept of EU law or not. Because if it really is, then naturally there will be less discretion left to the Member States in terms of in-house procurement regulation. In other words, Member States would not be allowed to limit the in-house agreement possibility and only the case-law would be the source of the in-house legality in each particular case. Secondly, the SCoL tries to understand, at least indirectly, what are the dynamics between competition law and the law on public procurement.

The situation where, on the one hand, public procurement law allows for in-house arrangements but, on the other hand, the Competition Council and its application of the rules of the Law on competition will be waiting around the corner, is not acceptable. The SCoL correctly noted that such situations jeopardise the legitimate expectations of economic operators and contracting authorities and make the whole legal ecosystem related to this issue very blurry. Without a doubt, the now much anticipated answers from the CJEU will have a strong impact on the application of the in-house exception. In Lithuania it might even mean, in case of positive answers given by the CJEU to most of the questions, that half of Art. 10 of the Law on public procurement, which regulates the “remainders” of in-house exemption, will be inapplicable due to the supremacy of the EU law and will have to be amended by the legislator.

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Dr. Deividas Soloveičik, LL.M

Dr Deividas Soloveičik is a Partner and Head of Public Procurement practice at COBALT Lithuania. He represents clients before national courts at all instances and arbitral institutions in civil and administrative cases, provides legal advice to Lithuanian and foreign private clients and contracting authorities, including the European Commission , on the legal aspects of public procurement and pre-commercial procurement.

Dr Soloveičik is an Associate Professor and researcher in commercial law at Vilnius University and a contributor to legal publications. He also closely cooperates with globally recognized academic members of the legal profession. Since 2011, MCIArb. Dr Soloveičik is a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators; since 2016, he is a member of the European Assistance for Innovation Procurement – EAFIP initiative promoted by the European Commission and a recommended arbitrator at Vilnius Court of Commercial Arbitration.

Guest blogging at HTCAN: If you would like to contribute a blog post for How to Crack a Nut, please feel free to get in touch at a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk. Your proposals and contributions will be most warmly welcomed!

Brexit & Procurement: Transitioning into the Void?

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Dr Pedro Telles and I are putting the last touches to a new paper on Brexit and procurement (see here for an earlier analysis). In this working paper, we concentrate on the implications of the draft transition agreement of March 2018, as well as some of the aspects of a potential future EU-UK FTA. The abstract of the paper, which is available on SSRN and on which we sincerely invite any feedback, is as follows:

On 29 March 2017, the UK notified its intention of leaving the EU. This activated the two-year disconnection period foreseen in Article 50 TEU, thus resulting in a default Brexit at the end of March 2019. The firming up of a draft agreement on a transition period to run until 31 December 2020 can now provide a longer timescale for the Brexit disconnection, as well as some clarity on the process of disentanglement of the UK’s and EU’s legal systems. The draft transition agreement of 19 March 2018 provides explicit rules on public procurement bound to regulate ‘internal’ procurement trade between the UK and the EU for a period of over 15 months. However, the uncertainty concerning the future EU-UK relationship remains, and the draft agreement does not provide any indication on the likely legal architecture for future EU-UK trade, including through public procurement. The draft agreement has thus not suppressed the risk of a ‘cliff-edge’ disconnection post-Brexit, but rather solely deferred it. The transition is currently not into an alternative system of procurement regulation, but rather into the void. There have also been very limited developments concerning the UK’s and EU’s repositioning within the World Trade Organisation Government Procurement Agreement (WTO GPA), which creates additional legal uncertainty from the perspective of ‘external’ trade in procurement markets due to the absence of a ‘WTO rules’ default applicable to public procurement.

Against the backdrop of this legal uncertainty, this paper critically assesses the implications for public procurement of the March 2018 draft transition agreement. In particular, the paper identifies three shortcomings that would have required explicit regulation: first, the (maybe inadvertent) exclusion from the scope of coverage of the of the draft transition agreement of procurement carried out by the EU Institutions themselves; second, the continued enforcement of the rules on contract modification and termination; and third, the interaction between procurement and other rules. The paper also and flags up some of the areas for future EU-UK collaboration that require further attention. The paper then goes on to revisit the continued uncertainty concerning the EU’s and UK’s position within the WTO GPA. It concludes that it is in both the UK’s and the EU’s interest to reach a future EU-UK FTA that ensures continued collaboration and crystallises current compliance with EU rules, and to build on it to reach a jointly negotiated solution vis-a-vis the rest of WTO GPA parties.

The full details of the paper are as follows: P Telles & A Sanchez-Graells, 'Brexit and Public Procurement: Transitioning into the Void?' (April 20, 2018) SSRN working paper https://ssrn.com/abstract=3166056.

Why call it essential national interest when you mean control? Thoughts on the converging exceptions to the EU procurement rules a propos the Austrian passports case (C-187/16)

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In its Judgment of 20 March 2018 in Commission v Austria (Imprimerie d'État), C-187/16, EU:C:2018:194, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) assessed the extent to which Austria could rely on claims of national security interest and/or essential national interest to justify the direct award of several contracts for the printing of passports and other secure documents to the former Austrian national printing office (ÖS). In rejecting this possibility, the CJEU followed AG Kokott’s strict approach to the interpretation of derogations of the EU public procurement rules (as discussed here) and, crucially, determined that ‘a Member State which wishes to avail itself of those derogations must establish that the protection of such interests could not have been attained within a competitive tendering procedure as provided for by’ the relevant EU public procurement rules (para 79).

The case is interesting, but hardly novel, in the narrow approach taken by the CJEU in the interpretation of exceptions from competitive tendering under the EU procurement rules (paras 69-96), as well as in relation to the standard of proof required to justify the existence of a ‘certain cross-border interest’ in the tendering of contracts not covered by the EU rules (paras 103-111, which largely follow the recent case of Tecnoedi, see here). However, I think that the case is also interesting for the ‘forward continuity’ and systemic convergence it shows amongst the different exceptions to the EU public procurement rules, which requires an appreciation of the case in the context of the evolution of EU public procurement law. I explore this idea in this post.

It is worth stressing that the case was decided in relation to the third and fourth generation of EU procurement rules, as Directives 92/50/EEC and 2004/18/EC were applicable to the case ratione temporis. Differently from the current Directive 2014/24/EU, both the 1992 and the 2004 version of the EU procurement rules preceded the adoption of Directive 2009/81/EC on defence and security procurement, as well as the development (Dir 92/50) and consolidation (Dir 2004/18) of the in-house providing and public-public cooperation exemptions (as Teckal dates back to 1999 and Commission v Germany (Hamburg waste) dates back to 2009). This is relevant in the interpretation of their exemptions based on security or essential national interests.

‘Forward continuity’ in the treatment of security or essential interest-based exemptions

Dir 92/50 foresaw the possibility for Member States to exempt the direct (or less than fully competitive) award of contracts for the provision of ‘services which are declared secret or the execution of which must be accompanied by special security measures in accordance with the laws, regulations or administrative provisions in force in the Member State concerned or when the protection of the basic interests of that State’s security so requires’ (Art 4(2), emphasis added). Similarly, Dir 2004/18 contained an equivalent exemption for ‘public contracts when they are declared to be secret, when their performance must be accompanied by special security measures in accordance with the laws, regulations or administrative provisions in force in the Member State concerned, or when the protection of the essential interests of that Member State so requires’ (Art 14, emphasis added).

This functionally-equivalent exemption under the 1992 and 2004 versions of the EU public procurement rules could have been used, for example, to justify the direct award of a contract to an entity controlled (or heavily influenced/supervised?) by the contracting authority in order to protect the relevant essential / security national interest through an organic governance relationship rather than through contract. In fact, this seems to be the thrust of the justifications put forward by Austria in the case now decided by the CJEU, given that most of the arguments are (rather implicitly based) on the ‘special relationship’ that Austria has established with ÖS (or rather, kept after ÖS’ privatisation). These exemptions would, in the end, possibly be seen as simple clarification that the existence of the EU public procurement rules did not require the contractualisation (and prior award) of the management of this type of services—provided that the existence of the security/essential national interest existed and the exemption from EU procurement rules passed muster under a (strict) proportionality assessment—although this approach to exemption based on the relationship between the contracting authority and the service provider seems to now be clearly within the functional realm of the in-house and public-public collaboration exemptions, rather than that of defence-related exemptions (see below).

Since its regulation in Dir 92/50 (and to a large extent, Dir 2004/18), the possibility to avoid contractualising (and tendering) the entrustment of the provision of services involving security or essential interests (through contracts or other types of ‘written agreements’, of which domestic administrative law regulates a garden variety) and/or the tendering of such public contracts has since evolved in two meaningful ways. First, Dir 2009/81 has come to establish a clearer instrument for the regulation of procurement involving defence and security interests and I argue that the subjection of a contract not covered by that specific instrument to the general rules of Dir 2014/24 will be largely dependent on a strict analysis similar to that carried out by the CJEU in the case against Austria, as Art 15(2) Dir 2014/24 echoes the wording of the Judgment. This will ensure ‘forward continuity’ in the assessment of these matters under EU procurement law.

Indeed, in relation to the pre-2014 rules, the CJEU has found that a ‘Member State which wishes to avail itself of those derogations must show that such derogation is necessary in order to protect its essential security interests’ (para 78) and that ‘the protection of such interests could not have been attained within a competitive tendering procedure’ (para 79), which assessment needs to take into account that ‘the requirement to impose an obligation of confidentiality does not in itself prevent the use of a competitive tendering procedure for the award of a contract’ (para 89) and that this is compatible with ‘the confidential nature of data can be protected by a duty of secrecy, without it being necessary to contravene public procurement procedures’ (para 90). Moreover, the exemption of a direct award needs to overcome a strict proportionality based on the absence of less intrusive measures, such as the possibility of establishing effective control mechanisms (para 86) and screening the trustworthiness of potential service providers based in a different Member State (para 87).

This is mirrored by the 2014 Directive’s requirement that it ‘shall not apply to public contracts and design contests … to the extent that the protection of the essential security interests of a Member State cannot be guaranteed by less intrusive measures, for instance by imposing requirements aimed at protecting the confidential nature of information which the contracting authority makes available in a contract award procedure as provided for in this Directive’ (Art 15(2) emphases added). This basically comes to ‘consolidate’ or sum up the requirements set by the CJEU in the Judgment in Commission v Austria, which is thus fully aligned with the rules in Dir 2014/24. In that regard, there will be a clear continuity in the analysis of these situations despite the approval of Dir 2009/18 in the intervening period.

Convergence with exemptions based on control of the service provider

Second, and maybe less self-evidently, the interpretation of the exemptions in Dir 92/50 and Dir 2004/18 need to be coordinated with the consolidation of the in-house and public-public cooperation exemptions in the case law of the CJEU to date—which may however experience further transformation in the future, as the rules in Dir 2014/24 start being interpreted by the CJEU.

It seems clear that, as a result of the Teckal and Hamburg doctrines, and even before their ‘recast’ in Art 12 of Dir 2014/24, Member States could have exempted the direct award of contracts for the printing of passports—or any other contracts involving security/essential national interests—not on those grounds, but on the basis of the ‘special’ relationship between the contracting authority and the provider of those ‘sensitive’ services. Where the relationship was one of ‘administrative mutualism’, the direct award could be exempted under the public-public exemption. Where the relationship was one of ‘similar control’ by the contracting authority, the exemption could be justified on the in-house providing doctrine.

In either of the cases, the relationship underlying the exemption requires a certain element of intuitu personae (to put it that way) between the entities participating in the non-tendered (contractual) arrangement. The existence of that ‘special nexus’ would justify a conceptualisation of the decision to award the contract as subjected to organic relationships and administrative governance, rather than contractualised mechanisms based on market-based governance and competition-based checks and balances. Conversely, where the contracting authority decided to contractualise the management of the relationship, and in the absence of special links with the arm’s length provider of the services, the contracting authority had to comply with the EU procurement rules.

The Commission v Austria case is interesting in that, underlying the reasoning of the Court (as well as the analysis of AG Kokott in her Opinion, see here) is an element of dismissiveness of the ‘special relationship’ created between Austria and ÖS. To put it in rather simple and tentative terms, my reading of the Judgment is that the CJEU is reluctant to recognise the exemption of a direct award where the mechanisms set up by the Member State to administer the security/essential national interest implicit in the provision of the services are fungible, in the sense that they could be easily recreated in relation to an alternative provider (or providers).

This is clear in the same paragraphs where the CJEU demonstrates the lack of proportionality of the direct award of the contract for the printing of passports (mainly, paras 80-94), where the Court repeatedly stresses the possibility for the Austrian authorities to have created adequate safeguards through contractual mechanisms aimed at: (i) ensuring the centralised execution of the contract (paras 81-83), (ii) the establishment of effective administrative supervision mechanisms (paras 84-86), (iii) guarantee of supply (para 87), (iv) the screening of the trustworthiness of the provider and confidentiality of sensitive information (paras 88-94).

This is compatible with the fact that, under the in-house and public-public cooperation doctrines, the entrustment of the provision of services to entities lacking that intuitu personae or special nexus—ie those governed by contract rather organic relationships—must comply with EU public procurement rules. This excludes the exemptability of direct awards such as that attempted by Austria, which is implicitly what the CJEU has established here by stressing the replicability with a suitable alternative provider of the ‘control’ or influence/oversight mechanisms that Austria has over ÖS—which would then fail to justify both (or either) exemption under the defence/essential interest doctrine and the in-house/public-public cooperation approach.

In my view, this is welcome as it reflects internal functional convergence across exemptions from compliance with EU public procurement rules on the basis of a distinction between the governance of relationships based on organic/administrative relationships and those based on markets and a competition logic. I think that this is a perspective worthy of further consideration, and it will be interesting to see of the CJEU makes this more explicit in future judgments.

Becoming a digital scholar -- some thoughts

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This post is based on a session of the South West Doctoral Training Partnership (SWDTP) 2017/18 student conference, and will also soon be published in its student-run journal.

The increasing digitisation of the world we live in is producing pervasive changes on the object of social science scholarship (both teaching and research) and on the ways in which scholarship across all fields is conducted, published and disseminated (for detailed analysis, see Daniels & Thistlethwaite, 2016). It is thus no wonder that PhD and early career researchers (ECRs) have developed a keen interest in understanding what this all means and in developing effective strategies to become ‘digital scholars’. This is not to say that scholars that have been in the game a bit longer have all gone digital, and ‘technology-averse’ or ‘technology-averting’ scholars are still very much present. However, as with many other entry requirements to the academic profession, it now seems that access to an academic job is almost conditional on establishing (or having established) a digital presence.

Against this background, I think it was a good call for the organisers of the SWDTP Student Conference to include a session on this topic as part of the programme dedicated to reflecting on ‘Research in a Changing World: Critical Encounters’. I am not so sure they chose the best facilitator for the session, but it was my great pleasure to exchange views and experiences with a great group of PhDs and ECRs. The following is a summary of the most salient points I took home from the discussion, which may or may not provide some useful guidance to scholars approaching their ‘digital transformation’.

1. There are different levels of engagement for ‘digital scholars’, and everyone can find an intensity with which they find themselves comfortable

Almost everyone employed by a higher education institution, research centre, public sector or private services provider will have some ‘involuntary’ online presence—if nothing else, due to the creation of a (possibly pictureless) personal profile page in their institutional website. Beyond that, developing a digital presence can mean different things to different people. Some will be comfortable with having their papers available in open access repositories (be they institutional, or general like SSRN), other people will take the additional step of blogging (again, either in institutional or specialised blogs, or in their own—which can be easily created with blogger, wordpress or my favourite squarespace), and the most enthusiastic will create profiles in social networks—either professional (academia, linkedin) or mixed (facebook, snapchat)—and/or engage with twitter (as well as some of the more techy-oriented add-ons, such as tweetdeck or hashtagify). I am not sure whether this would count as supporting one’s digital presence or goes beyond that, but there also are increasing possibilities to share presentations (slideshare, prezi) and videos (youtube) in digital platforms, which are used in different ways by academics and academic institutions.

It is important to decide ‘how far to go digital’ depending on one’s personal circumstances, but also bearing in mind that for a digital presence to be effective and convey the right messages (of being active and engaged, of having interwoven digital interactions as part of general academic activities), it will be necessary to keep a certain level of update or activity. While posting new papers on SSRN can hardly require any specific timing for updates and contributing guest posts to institutional or other blogs can also be done sporadically, running your own blog will require something between 3 and 10 posts a month, and having a ‘satisfied’ following on twitter will probably require some daily activity.

Therefore, it is important to consider how much time and energy it is possible to spend in these activities and how they fit around daily/weekly routines. Conversely, though, it also seems to me important to have very good reasons not to engage in non-recurring activities such as facilitating open access to scholarly publications and writing up more accessible blogs—as these can generate clear advantages (see below) and do not create an on-going commitment with the ‘digital world’. Thus, I would wholeheartedly invite everyone reading this to try to create a blog post on the basis of their most recently completed piece of research (Prof Dunleavy offers great tips on how to do so). The exercise will not be in vain, as it will help you reflect on your writing and, once you have your blog post, you will be one step closer to creating or boosting your digital presence (eg, by sending the blog post to a suitable platform in your field of expertise).

2. There can be great gains from nurturing a visible digital presence, but they may come late and most of them are rather serendipitous

Other than for those that genuinely enjoy those interactions, or those that use digital tools as part of their research method, the main advantage of engaging with the ‘digital world’ is probably not for the academic, at least in the short term, but rather for society at large. A big part of the content and effort that is put into developing the digital presence (eg blogs, active twitter interactions, etc) will primarily be for the benefit of the audience to which it is addressed—and, ultimately, for anyone engaging with those insights, with the knowledge, as a public good. Scholars will only benefit from making the content accessible to such broader audience—which would otherwise largely ignore academic research behind pay walls or solely disseminated in academic circles—to the extent that there is an engagement with the research and, in particular, if that research is adopted or followed by relevant stakeholders and policy-makers. Therefore, the main role that digital scholarship can have is that of supporting the core academic endeavour of pursuing and exchanging knowledge both for its own sake and for the bettering of society.

From a more utilitarian perspective, in my view, there are two additional important points to bear in mind here. One, that while one has control over his or her own digital strategy, the availability of content and one side of the engagement efforts, there is always an uncontrollable element in that ‘shouting at the internet’ does not mean that anyone is necessarily listening. This should not detract from the value of putting ourselves and our research ‘out there’ because we never know when someone might start listening. Second, it is worth stressing that impact (in particular in REF terms) can hardly be fabricated, but it can be facilitated. And, in an environment where most people (including professional researchers, journalists and policy-makers) are getting their information online (Google knows it all), having a digital presence can make a big difference in terms of being noticed and benefiting from important opportunities.

In my own personal experience, it has taken a long time of sustained effort in building a digital presence until it has generated some tangible benefits—but these have been rather substantial. I started blogging in 2011 in Spanish and then switched to English in 2012 when I joined UK academia. It took the best part of three years of blogging regularly to get my personal blog positioned as the blog of reference in my core area of expertise (EU public procurement law). But once the blog’s presence and reputation (and mine, indirectly) were established, a few high-profile opportunities emerged, such as the possibility of acting as an expert for the European Court of Auditors (2014), the European Commission (since 2015), being invited to submit evidence to the House of Lords (2016) and to engage with the Department for International Trade (2018). I am thanked regularly by practitioners for the update and insight provided by the blog, and I have also been contacted by journalists who had identified me as an expert in the areas they were intending to report about (sometimes rightly, sometimes not). Of course, this is not solely the result of my blogging and tweeting activities, but had my ‘deeper’ research or my ‘standard’ expertise not been disseminated through the blog, twitter and SSRN, they probably would have gone largely unnoticed. I think my experience may serve as an indication that there is value in being digitally present, even if it is not clear whether anyone is watching or listening, and even if the advantages are not immediate (or even observable). Thus, the investment of time and energy in blogging, tweeting or otherwise being active in social networks needs to be seen as cumulative and for the long term.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that more digital exposure also means more space for criticism or even trolling, in particular if one engages with controversial topics and/or holds controversial views (such as the ones I held concerning Brexit or the Catalan independence challenge). While constructive criticism should always be welcome (and digital exchanges are great at facilitating timely feedback), trolling or even online abuse can be quite annoying. That said, unless one becomes an ‘academic celebrity’, it is also fairly unlikely that dealing with the less pleasing side of twitter or other interactions cannot be restrained by simply ignoring or blocking a few trolls—who also tend to lose interest rather quickly.

3. What and how much to show?

A final point bearing some consideration before embarking in the construction or reconstruction of one’s digital presence is to consider how to balance academic (or professional) and personal aspects. Some people will not make a hard distinction between personal and academic personas (I do not, although I have a separate twitter handle for my blog and for myself), while others will prefer to keep their digital presence purely academic. This is certainly a matter of personal choice and I can see advantages and disadvantages in both approaches.

On the one hand, it may be that the audience one is trying to address is rather formal or even institutional, so that content or interaction based on personal experiences, hobbies or non-expert opinions is not necessary, welcome or even frowned upon. On the other hand, however, and within limits, it seems interesting to know more about the researcher/academic and his or her world view. Moreover, some distinctions can be somehow artificial. While I would have no problem in refraining from tweeting about jazz music or bread-making if I wanted to keep my twitter account ‘academic’, I would not be sure where to draw the line when I engage with current events, exchange political views, or discuss issues outside my core area of expertise.

I think that there will not be a right or wrong approach (although it is always good to consider whether we would be happy to share personal details and information with perfect strangers in a face-to-face interaction, which can help deflate a certain ‘online hype of anonymity’), but it is worth considering this issue at the outset and to keep a consistent approach, and with which one feels comfortable.

Wrapping up

On the whole, I think there is plenty that researchers and academics can happily embrace in the process of becoming digital scholars or building up a digital presence. I think that everyone should be pushing open-access agendas as far as possible and blogging about their research, with no exception. Other steps, which require more energy and time, will appeal to different people at different levels of intensity. The only advice I would venture is to consider those demands in advance and, if in doubt, to step into the digital world incrementally. I think that doing so and disseminating research to the widest possible audiences has value in and of itself. I also think that it can generate significant benefits for researchers and academics in the long run, which should influence the level of investment in time and energy and provide some comfort when the effort may seem to be lost. Finally, like in everything else, we need to decide what persona to project in the digital sphere, and the one certainty is that there is no one size fits all.

Easter 2018 Procurement Radar [back on w/c 9 April]

 ©  maxmaria .

Dear How to Crack a Nut friends,

I am sure you will have had as full a first quarter of the year as me, and I hope you can enjoy a well-deserved break over the Easter period.

I have a few things on the radar, on which I am thinking but have not had time to write blog posts (see below, in case you need some reading, and thanks to those of you who alerted me to some of these issues).

However, I need to take a break from blogging to concentrate on a couple of papers and an edited book that I have neglected for too long. So, I thought I would stop for the duration of the Easter judicial vacation of the Court of Justice. I will thus aim to resume blogging on the week commencing 9 April.

I hope to find you here then.
Best wishes,
Albert

On the radar

  • On conflicts of interest and damages compensation for loss of opportunity in public procurement of the EU Institutions (ie under Art 340 TFEU), see the Judgment of the General Court (Third Chamber, Extended Composition) of 28 February 2018 in Vakakis kai Synergates v Commission, T-292/15,  EU:T:2018:103.

  • On the protection of essential interests of the Member States (special security measures) as an exception to compliance with EU public procurement law, see Judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union of 20 March 2018 in Commission v Austria, C-187/16, EU:C:2018:194. For discussion of the Opinion of AG Kokkot in this case, see my previous blog entry.

  • On the threshold for liability in damages due to breach of public procurement law, in addition to the discussion of Fosen-Linjen (see here and here), you may be interested in the views of the Irish Court of Appeals--which followed the UK Supreme Court's approach and implicitly rejected the EFTA Court's position by establishing that 'in the case of Francovich damages (and, by extension, damages for breach of public procurement rules under Article 9(6) of the 2010 Regulations), it is necessary to show not simply that there had been an objective breach of breach of E.U. law, but rather that such breach was either “grave or manifest” or “inexcusable”'; Word Perfect Translation Services Limited -v- Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform [2018] IECA 35, para 56.

  • On the classification of concessions contracts as for works or for services, see the Judgment of the EFTA Court of 21 March 2018 in  EFTA Surveillance Authority v Norway (Kristiansand's parking), case E-4/17 (and a press release also available).

  • On public-private partnerships and their failure to deliver adequate value for money, see the hot-off-the-press European Court of Auditors Special report 09/2018: Public Private Partnerships in the EU: Widespread shortcomings and limited benefits.

  • Even if it was published a while back, it may be worth catching up with the European Commission's February 2018 Public Procurement Guidance on avoiding the most common errors in projects funded by the European structural and investment funds. 

Do EU procurement & State aid rules conflict on possibility for consortium members to 'go it alone'? (C-127/16 P)

In its Judgment of 7 March 2018 in SNCF Mobilités v Commission, C-127/16 P, EU:C:2018:165, in the context of the analysis of a measure of State aid for restructuring and recapitalisation involving a bidding process, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) indicated that it is not acceptable for the assets to be transferred to a bidder that had initially participated in the process as a member of a consortium but subsequently decided to 'go it alone' and submitted a solo bid for the assets. In establishing this principle, the CJEU seems to have taken a position that can potentially be functionally incompatible with its previous case law in the area of public procurement and, in particular, in its Judgment of 24 May 2016 in MT Højgaard and Züblin, C-396/14, EU:C:2016:347 (see here). This blog post discusses this potential functional contradiction in the case law of the Court.

 

SNCF Mobilités v Commission

In simple terms, this dispute concerned France's obligation to recover State aid given to SNCF (its national state-owned railway company) that was declared incompatible with EU law (Art 107 TFEU) by the European Commission. One of the possibilities that France had was to sell all assets of the relevant company within the SNCF group (Sernam) 'en bloc ... at market price through a transparent and open procedure to a company that has no legal link with SNCF' (C-127/16 P, para 7). The process for the sale of Sernam's assets en bloc was rather complicated, but the relevant part of the mechanism was as follows:

... Sernam’s economic situation failed to elicit any proposals based on a positive valuation in the call for tenders conducted on SNCF’s behalf by a bank. All the offers submitted under that procedure concluded that the value was very negative. As no firm offer had been submitted, the decision was taken to continue the discussions solely with the consortium established by candidate 5 who was associated with Sernam’s management team. On 15 June 2005, candidate 5 ultimately informed SNCF orally that it was not in a position to submit a takeover offer — not even a conditional one — before 30 June 2005. On 30 June 2005, SNCF took the decision to conclude the sale with Financière Sernam, which was wholly owned by Sernam’s management team (C-127/16 P, paras 8-9).

In the context of the dispute whether France met the requirements of the previous Commission decision requiring recovery of the State aid, one of the legal issues triggered by the French authorities' decision to enter into a sale agreement with Sernam's management team (through Financière Sernam) is whether it met the requirements for the transfer to result from 'a transparent and open procedure'. The Commission took the view that this was not the case. Before the CJEU considered this issue on appeal, the General Court (GC) had assessed the situation in its Judgment of 17 December 2015 in SNCF v Commission, T-242/12, EU:T:2015:1003.

In the relevant part of the Judgment (T-242/12, paras 162 and ff), the GC explains how, in the context of the procedure aimed at finding a buyer Sernam's assets en bloc, a final round of negotiations resulted in two offers. In simple terms, there was an offer by candidate 4 that valued the assets at - €65.2mn and an offer by a consortium composed of candidate 5 and Sernam's management team that valued the assets at -€56.4mn. In view of this, it was agreed to solely continue discussions with candidate 5 and Sernam’s management (para 164). During these discussions, as mentioned above, candidate 5 withdrew from the process and the management team submitted a solo offer that valued the assets at -€95.5mn (para 167). The acceptance of this offer by SNCF triggered two main issues.

First, given their significant divergence in the valuation of Sernam's assets, whether the solo offer submitted by Sernam's management team was comparable to the prior indicative offer of the consortium with candidate 5. The GC considered that 'the Commission was correct in not considering equivalent in terms of credibility and soundness the offer from a financial investor, candidate 5, who, moreover, was proposing to inject a significant amount of capital into Sernam, and the offer from 84 management and director employees financing a low amount, being EUR 2 million of the price, from their own resources' (T-242/12, para 168). Second, and more relevant for our discussion, there were concerns about the transparency and openness of the procedure for the sale of the assets en bloc. In that regard, the GC established that

... [SNCF] and the French Republic observe that the requirement that a procedure be transparent and open does not cease once the best bidder has been selected and the other candidates have, by definition, been rejected, and that the discussions continue with the ‘last interested party’.

The ‘last interested person’ in the transparent and open tendering procedure in this case was candidate 4 ... the management team’s firm offer, for EUR ‑95.5 million, was also less attractive for the vendor than the preliminary second-round offer from candidate 4, with its negative price of EUR ‑65.2 million ... As observed by the Commission in its written pleadings, following candidate 5’s withdrawal, recourse should have been had to candidate 4, who had been part of the process since the beginning and had also indicated its interest at the end of the second round.

The offer from the management team cannot be considered that of the ‘last interested party’, since it did not participate independently in the transparent and open procedure.

... the applicant submits that it is not relevant to compare the management team’s firm offer with the non-binding offer from the consortium of which it was a part, as only the firm offer is valid, even if it is not the best bid.

That argument must be rejected, since the question here is whether the management team’s firm offer was the result of the tendering procedure, which necessarily involves an examination of the non-binding offers submitted during the tendering procedure.

Therefore, the argument aimed at establishing that the management team participated from the beginning of the tendering procedure must be rejected because it did not participate independently and did not submit alone the offer it had initially submitted with candidate 5. Its offer cannot therefore be considered to result from a transparent and open procedure (T-242/12, paras 169-174, emphases added).

Regardless of the issue of equivalence of the offers, the argumentation constructed by the GC in these passages (implicitly) relies on the principle that members of a consortium cannot be seen as participating both within the consortium and in their own name, which establishes an insurmountable impossibility against any decision to 'go it alone' if the other member(s) of the consortium withdraw.

This principle was directly challenged in the appeal before the CJEU. In short, the challenge was that '... candidate 5 and Sernam’s management team had, within a consortium, been associated with the tendering procedure from the start of that procedure and had proposed the least negative value for the assets en bloc. It was only after candidate 5 withdrew that Sernam’s management team decided to pursue the process and submit on their own the takeover offer initially put forward by the consortium. The applicant thus takes the view that such circumstances meet the requirements of an open and transparent tendering procedure as reflected in the Commission’s decision-making practice and the Court’s case-law' (C-127/16 P, para 62).

Remarkably, SNCF argued that 'it is possible to accept that the principles of openness and transparency in public procurement may be applicable by analogy to procedures involving transfers of assets. It is apparent from Directive 2014/24/EU ... and from Directive 2014/23/EU ... that EU law allows for awarding such a contract to an economic operator without prior advertising or competition following an unsuccessful first tendering procedure, including when the operator did not participate in that first procedure, without that constituting an infringement of the principles of openness and transparency. Those principles should a fortiori be deemed to have been observed where the assets have been transferred to the last interested party, the only one to have made a firm offer, when it has participated in the process in its entirety, initially as part of a consortium from which the other party withdrew in the course of the procedure' (C-127/16 P, para 64).

On this point, the CJEU reasoned as follows:

First of all, without it being necessary to rule on a potential analogy between the tendering procedure relevant to the present case and the principles that are applicable in public procurement ... it should be noted that the applicant’s argument concerning that potential analogy is based on the fact that, at the end of the tendering procedure, no bid or no appropriate bid had been submitted. That kind of argument can be successful only if it challenges the General Court’s findings of fact in paragraph 170 of the judgment under appeal, to the effect that ‘[t]he “last interested person” in the transparent and open tendering procedure in this case was candidate 4. … As observed by the Commission in its written pleadings, following candidate 5’s withdrawal, recourse should have been had to candidate 4, who had been part of the process since the beginning and had also indicated its interest at the end of the second round’. That argument, which asks the Court of Justice to substitute its analysis for the one carried out by the General Court as part of its sovereign assessment of the facts and evidence, is therefore inadmissible and must be rejected.

Next, the practice followed by the Commission in its decisions or its guidelines, even if that practice were to support the applicant’s argument cannot, in any event, bind the Court in its interpretation of the EU rules ...

In any event ... according the Court’s case-law, the question whether a tendering procedure has been open and transparent is determined on the basis of a body of indicia specific to the circumstances of each case ...

Accordingly, in the light of the facts of the present case, and having held in paragraphs 170 and 171 of the judgment under appeal, that the successful bid did not originate from a candidate who had participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning of that procedure, the General Court was correct in holding, in paragraph 174 of that judgment, that the requirement of an open and transparent procedure had not been observed (C-127/16 P, paras 66-69, references omitted).

Accordingly, the CJEU SNCF Mobilités Judgment explicitly upholds the fact that for a tenderer to be awarded the contract for the sale of assets en bloc as a result of an 'open and transparent procedure', it is an absolute requirement that the 'successful bid ... originate[s] from a candidate who had participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning of that procedure'. This is in functional conflict with the previous Judgment in MT Højgaard and Züblin, as discussed below.

MT Højgaard and Züblin

In this public procurement case based on the 2004 EU utilities procurement rules (Dir 2004/17/EC), the CJEU ruled on whether the principle of equal treatment of economic operators must be interpreted as precluding a contracting entity from allowing an economic operator that is a member of a group of two undertakings which was pre-selected and which submitted the first tender in a negotiated procedure for the award of a public contract, to continue to take part in that procedure in its own name, after the dissolution of that group due to the bankruptcy of the other partner.

In that case, the contracting authority had indicated that it wanted to proceed to negotiations with between four and six candidates. It received expressions of interest from five candidates, which included interest by a consortium consisting of Per Aarsleff and E. Pihl og Søn A/S (‘the Aarsleff and Pihl group’). The contracting authority pre-selected all five candidates and invited them to submit tenders. One of the pre-selected candidates subsequently withdrew from the procedure. 

For the purposes of our discussion, the relevant fact is that Pihl entered into bankruptcy prior to the submission of the tender, which de facto implied the dissolution of the Aarsleff and Pihl group. Aarsleff decided to 'go it alone' and proceed as a solo tenderer. The contracting authority was thus left with two options: (a) to consider that Aarsleff was not qualified on its own merits (or, in the terms of the SNCF Mobilités Judgment (above) that it had not 'participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning') and to carry on with the negotiated procedure with 'only' three tenders; or, conversely, (b) to consider that Aarsleff could benefit from the qualification of the group to which it initially belonged and go forward with its desired minimum of four tenders. After some deliberation and information to all remaining candidates, Aarsleff was  allowed to submit a solo tender and, after a further round of best and final offers between the three better placed tenderers, it was awarded the contract.

In reviewing the compatibility of this decision with general principles of EU public procurement law, the CJEU established that, in the absence of specific rules on this subject, 'the question of whether a contracting entity may allow such an alteration must be examined with regard to the general principles of EU law, in particular the principle of equal treatment and the duty of transparency that flows from it, and the objectives of that law in relation to public procurement' (C‑396/14, para 36). In carrying out such analysis, the CJEU determined that

The principle of equal treatment of tenderers, the aim of which is to promote the development of healthy and effective competition between undertakings taking part in a public procurement procedure, requires that all tenderers must be afforded equality of opportunity when formulating their tenders, and therefore implies that the tenders of all competitors must be subject to the same conditions ...

...  [the rules on qualitative selection] may be qualified in order to ensure, in a negotiated procedure, adequate competition ...

If, however, an economic operator is to continue to participate in the negotiated procedure in its own name, following the dissolution of the group of which it formed part and which had been pre-selected by the contracting entity, that continued participation must take place in conditions which do not infringe the principle of equal treatment of the tenderers as a whole.

In that regard, a contracting entity is not in breach of that principle where it permits one of two economic operators, who formed part of a group of undertakings that had, as such, been invited to submit tenders by that contracting entity, to take the place of that group following the group’s dissolution, and to take part, in its own name, in the negotiated procedure for the award of a public contract, provided that it is established, first, that that economic operator by itself meets the requirements laid down by the contracting entity and, second, that the continuation of its participation in that procedure does not mean that the other tenderers are placed at a competitive disadvantage
(C-396/14, paras 38, 41, 43-44 & 47, references omitted and emphases added). 

As is clear from these passages, in MT Højgaard and Züblin, the CJEU rejected the principle that transparency and equal treatment required that a tenderer had 'participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning'. It rather established a more nuanced approach that required that the 'going it alone' tenderer was in a position to meet all relevant requirements of previous phases of the procedure (in that case, qualitative selection) and that it gained no competitive advantage--or, conversely, that no other tenderer was placed at a competitive disadvantage.

Overall comments

In my view, the SNCF Mobilités Judgment is problematic for the dogmatic principle that it sets out in terms of an absolute requirement of autonomous participation from the beginning. The MT Højgaard and Züblin Judgment can be criticised on other grounds (see here) but, from that perspective, its more nuanced approach towards tolerating decisions to 'go it alone' may be preferable in contexts where retention of a solo tender by the remaining member of a disbanded consortium can be determinative of the competitive tension within the tender procedure [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 339].

More importantly, in my view, the SNCF Mobilités Judgment could have reached the same conclusions if it applied the more nuanced approach of MT Højgaard and Züblin. Indeed, it is hard to argue against the view that, by continuing conversations solely with Sernam's management team and accepting an offer that valued the assets at a very significant value below the previous consortium offer as well as the previous offer by candidate 4, SNCF put Sernam's management team at a clear advantage. In view of the withdrawal of candidate 5, SNCF would have been better advised to go back to the immediate previous step of the procedure and compare whichever solo offer Sernam's management team could submit with that of candidate 4. Doing that would also respect the basic principles of stage rounds of negotiations, whereby ceteris paribus the offers presented in each of the rounds should improve upon previous offers.

On the whole, then, I think that the SNCF Mobilités Judgment is a missed opportunity to have created more integration and compatibility between the procedural requirements applicable under EU State aid and public procurement rules. At the same time, given that the CJEU avoided engaging in the 'potential analogy between the tendering procedure [for the sale of assets en bloc] and the principles that are applicable in public procurement', it is to be hoped that the dogmatic approach of the SNCF Mobilités Judgment will not muddy the waters of the case law on modification of the composition of bidding consortia for the strict purposes of EU public procurement law.

Recording of seminar on procurement damages post-Fosen Linjen available

The Bergen Center for Competition Law & Economics (BECCLE) has now published the recording of the excellent seminar "Damages for breach of Public Procurement Law – Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS and its implications" held on 1 March--in which I had the pleasure and honour to participate. The recording includes four excellent and very lively presentations (modesty apart): 

  • Dag Sørlie Lund – “The Norwegian law and practice on damages arising from public procurement breaches before Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS, and the challenges it entails.”
  • Kirsi-Maria Halonen – “A comparative approach to damages: The Finnish and Swedish practice on damages arising from public procurement breaches.”
  • Albert Sánchez Graells – “Approaches to the ‘seriousness’ of the breach: The EFTA Court vs the UK Supreme Court.”
  • Halvard Haukeland Fredriksen – “Norway after the Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS case: What is to be expected and what are its repercussions – here and elsewhere.”

Given that the case is headed for the Norwegian Supreme Court after the Frostating Court of Appeal decided not to follow the EFTA Court's Opinion, the discussion we had in the seminar may be of particular interest. My arguments are further developed in this paper.

When will you show me the papers? Technical capacity, technical dossiers and verification during the procurement process (C-14/17)

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.

Background

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.

Overall consideration

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.

CJEU greenlights ‘remedying procedural short-comings in return for (proportionate) payment’ (C-523/16 & C-536/16)

In its Judgment of 28 February 2018 in MA.T.I. SUD, C-523/16, EU:C:2018:135, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) accepted the compatibility with EU public procurement law (2004 version) in principle of domestic rules allowing for the 'remedying of procedural shortcomings in return for payment', whereby a contracting authority can invite any tenderer whose tender is vitiated by serious irregularities to rectify that tender, subject to the payment of a financial penalty--provided that the amount of that penalty is proportionate.

However, given previous case law excluding the possibility to remedy serious shortcomings in submitted tenders, the CJEU has stressed that such 'remedial mechanism in return for payment' is subject to the limitation that, despite the existence of such financial penalty, the contracting authority cannot require a tenderer to remedy the lack of a document which, according to the express provisions in the contract documentation, must result in the exclusion of that tenderer, or to eliminate irregularities such that any corrections or changes would amount to a new tender (para 65).

It is important to note, though, that despite establishing this position in principle, the CJEU also provided extremely clear indications that, in its view, there is a need to subject the assessment of the adequacy of the correction of the tenders to a strict assessment to make sure that they do not imply a new tender or the circumvention of the tender documentation (or, in other words, to make sure that the correction is not really of a serious irregularity, but rather a minor one), and that the penalties threatened in the Italian domestic cases that generated the preliminary reference cannot be considered proportionate (paras 62 & 64).

This anticipated analysis of incompatibility in concreto despite compatibility in abstracto begs the question whether the position in principle taken by the CJEU--ie the acceptaibility of non-serious modifications subject to proportionate financial penalties--is an adequate default rule, or whether a different default rule would be preferable--ie the acceptability of non-serious modifications without penalty.

In my view, and largely for the same reasons given in criticising the Opinion of AG Campos Sanchez-Bordona that the CJEU has now followed (see here, where they are developed in detail), in tolerating the imposition of financial penalties as a condition for the remediation of minor procedural defects, the MA.T.I. SUD Judgment sets the wrong default rule and is undesirable for its potential anti-SME effects, as well as due to the potential blurring of the narrow space that actually exists for the correction of serious irregularities under the Manova-Slovensko-Archus and Gama case law (see here, here and here). In adopting a seemingly more flexible approach in principle, in MA.T.I. SUD the CJEU may be creating more confusion than providing clarity, solely with the aim of maintaining a questionable space for domestic procedural administrative discretion. On balance, I would have thought it preferable for the CJEU to indicate more clearly and simply that serious irregularities cannot be corrected (with or without financial penalty), and that the correction of minor irregularities needs to be always accepted without sanction.

In MA.T.I. SUD, the CJEU assessed the compatibility with Art 51 of Directive 2004/18/EC of an Italian provision that enabled tenderers for public contracts to remedy any irregularities in their tenders, but at the same time imposed on them a financial penalty proportional to the value of the contract--of between 0.1% and 1% of the value of the contract, with a maximum ceiling of €50,000. The amount of the penalty was to be set in advance by the contracting authority and guaranteed by a provisional security (or bid bond), and could not be adjusted according to the gravity of the irregularity that it remedied. The maximum penalty was later reduced to €5,000, and eventually suppressed. This reduces the immediate impact of the MA.T.I. SUD Judgment. However, this CJEU ruling will be relevant beyond the specific context of Italian procurement rules, not only in relation with the now phased out transposition of Art 51 of Directive 2004/18, but also with Art 59 of Directive 2014/24/EU (which was not applicable ratione temporis). Both provisions foresee that contracting authorities can seek clarifications from tenderers under specified conditions.

There are some passages of the Judgment I consider relevant:

... when they implement the possibility provided for in Article 51 of Directive 2004/18 [whereby the contracting authority may invite economic operators to supplement or clarify the certificates and documents submitted to it], the Member States must ensure that they do not jeopardise the attainment of the objectives pursued by that directive or undermine the effectiveness of its provisions and other relevant provisions and principles of EU law, particularly the principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination, transparency and proportionality ...

It must also be borne in mind that Article 51 of Directive 2004/18 cannot be interpreted as allowing the contracting authority to accept any rectification of omissions which, as expressly provided for in the contract documentation, had to lead to the exclusion of the tenderer ...

... a request for clarification cannot make up for the lack of a document or information whose production was required by the contract documents, the contracting authority being required to comply strictly with the criteria which it has itself laid down ...

In addition, such a request may not lead to the submission by a tenderer of what would appear in reality to be a new tender

... the very concept of substantial irregularity ... does not appear to be compatible with Article 51 of Directive 2004/18 or with the requirements to which the clarification of a tender in the context of a public contract falling within the scope of Directive 2004/17 is subject, according to the case-law of the Court ...

It follows that the mechanism of assistance in compiling the documentation [under dispute] ... is not applicable if the tender submitted by a tenderer cannot be rectified or clarified within the meaning of the case-law referred ... above, and that, consequently, no penalty can be imposed on the tenderers in such a case (C-523/16, paras 48-49, 51-52 & 55-56 references omitted and emphasis added).

In my view, this reasoning of the CJEU reflects the state of the law and a desirable normative position. It would have allowed the CJEU to simply declare the Italian system incompatible due to the excess that a correction of serious irregularities would imply in comparison with the boundaries on tender modification derived from Manova-Slovensko-Archus and Gama. And the CJEU could have done that without entering into a discussion of whether proportionate penalties for non-substantial modifications are acceptable. On this point, it should be stressed that contested Italian rule also foresaw that '[i]n the case of non-substantial irregularities, that is, any non-essential absence or incompleteness of declarations, the contracting authority shall not require the remedying thereof or impose any penalty' (AGO, C-523/16, para 5). Therefore, in the case at hand, the narrow regulatory space left by the CJEU for the imposition of sanctions would not be occupied by the Italian rules, as the Italian legislator saw no need to sanction any such minor tender corrections.

On the whole, then, the MA.T.I. SUD Judgment seems to unnecessarily create a default rule that can be problematic in the interpretation and operationalisation of the rules in Arts 56 and 59 of Dir 2014/24. This stems from the fact that the CJEU has endorsed the underlying principle that 'the imposition of a financial penalty is indeed an appropriate means of achieving the legitimate objectives pursued by the Member State related to the need to place responsibility on the tenderers in submitting their tenders and to offset the financial burden that any regularisation represents for the contracting authority' (para 63). In my view, this runs contrary to the pro-competitive and pro-SME orientation of the 2014 Public Procurement Package. It also reflects a general understanding of public procurement law not as a mode of governance aimed at ensuring best value for money in the expenditure of public funds, but rather a set of fully justiciable rules aimed at discharging the cost and risk of the procurement function on the economic operators, which is then of course putting pressure at the other end of the spectrum via claims for damages where (complex) justiciable rules are not complied with absolutely. In my view, this creates an unrealistic framework for the carrying out of procurement efforts, and more scope for collaborative approaches within the boundaries of the requirements for equal treatment and competition would be superior.

Therefore, I can only hope that, in the future and with a right case, the CJEU will be able to further clarify its position--or, rectius, to reverse position and rule out the possibility of intra-tender sanctions for minor modifications. This is a normative point and, as I said before, the same way I argue against charging potentially interested tenderers for access to the tender documentation, I also take the normative position that imposing fines for the remediation of documentation shortcomings is undesirable, which leads me to propose their eradication de lege ferenda (by analogy, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 280-281).

 

 

The end of procurement as we knew it? CJEU consolidates Falk Pharma approach to definition of procurement in Tirkkonen (C-9/17)

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In its Judgment of 1 March 2018 in Tirkkonen, C-9/17, EU:C:2018:142, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) had to assess whether a scheme with the following characteristics had to be classed as a framework agreement and thus subjected to the EU procurement rules (at the relevant time, Directive 2004/18/EC, now repealed by Directive 2014/24/EU).

The scheme was as follows: the Finnish Agency for Rural Affairs (contracting authority, or Agency) had to manage the provision of agricultural advisory services to farmers and land managers having entered into an environmental agreement concerning the payment of environmental compensation payments. The Agency designed a draft contract for the provision of agricultural advisory services that potential suppliers had to adhere to as a condition for their participation in the scheme as service providers. The draft contract foresaw an hourly rate for the retribution of the services, which was to be covered by the Agency, with the beneficiary farmer or land manager paying the applicable VAT. The Agency would create a pool of potential suppliers amongst those qualified that had expressed interest and passed an examination. Once this pool was created, no other providers would be able to join the scheme for the period 2015-2020. Farmers and land owners require the services of any of the advisors included in the scheme.

In deciding the case, the CJEU reiterated that 'the choice of a tender and, thus, of a successful tenderer, is intrinsically linked to the regulation of public contracts by [Directive 2004/18] and, consequently, to the concept of "public contract" within the meaning of Article 1(2) of that directive'. Further, the CJEU extracted the implication 'that the fact that the contracting authority does not designate an economic operator to whom contractual exclusivity is to be awarded means that there is no need to control, through the detailed rules of Directive 2004/18, the action of that contracting authority so as to prevent it from awarding a contract in favour of national operators' (C-9/17, paras 30-31). By stressing that procurement requires the contracting authority to choose the economic operator meant to provide the relevant supplies, services or works, the CJEU concluded that, in the case at hand, 'a farm advisory scheme ... through which a public entity accepts all the economic operators who meet the suitability requirements set out in the invitation to tender and who pass the examination referred to in that invitation to tender, even if no new operator can be admitted during the limited validity period of that scheme, does not constitute a public contract within the meaning of that directive' (C-9/17, para 41).

In formulating this position, the CJEU largely followed the approach suggested by AG Campos Sanchez-Bordona (criticised here) and consolidated the restrictive approach to the definition of procurement the CJEU itself had first formulated in Falk Pharma (C-410/14, EU:C:2016:399; also criticised here). In doing so, the CJEU has further jeopardised the effectiveness of EU public procurement law beyond the initial dent made by Falk Pharma. Tirkkonen concerned a factual situation clearly subsumable within the concept of a framework agreement that involved exclusion of potential competing providers of services for a period of 5 years--whereas Falk Pharma concerned an open-ended system where entry by new providers was possible, which made its classification within the concept of dynamic purchasing system perhaps less straightforward (although not really). This makes Tirkkonen a Judgment even more troubling than Falk Pharma. Given that the CJEU relied on Directive 2014/24 in Falk Pharma, even if Tirkkonen does not mention it in its operative part, it seems that this restrictive approach is now clearly consolidated for the foreseeable future and that it will impose a restrictive approach to the concept of procurement in the future. For the reasons discussed below, I find this development regrettable.

Excessively narrow concept of procurement--Choice obsession

The CJEU has not placed center-stage the requirement for the contracting authority to choose 'tender and, thus, ... a successful tenderer ... to whom contractual exclusivity is to be awarded' (presumably, solely, or within a framework agreement), but rather idolatrised it and put it in a high pedestal from which it can only fall in the future.

The CJEU has forced this position to the extreme of potentially creating further confusion about the distinction between selection and award criteria concerning professional qualifications and expertise of the members of staff involved in the future provision of services--thus potentially reigniting the discussion of the interaction between Lianakis and Ambisig (see here). This emerges from the exceedingly formal reasoning followed by the CJEU in Tirkkonen, where the CJEU was at pains to avoid classifying the

... it is apparent ... that the Agency intends to set up a large pool of advisers who must fulfil a number of conditions. However, in so far as the Agency admits all the candidates who satisfy those requirements, it is clear ... that it makes no selection among the admissible tenders and that it confines itself to ensuring that qualitative criteria are respected.

... the fact that, unlike the context that gave rise to ... Falk Pharma ... a farm advisory scheme ... is not permanently open to interested economic operators is irrelevant. In the present case, the decisive factor is that the contracting authority has not referred to any award criteria for the purpose of comparing and classifying admissible tenders. In the absence of that factor, which is, as is apparent from paragraph 38 of ... Falk Pharma ..., intrinsically linked to the regulation of public contracts, a farm advisory scheme ... cannot constitute a public contract within the meaning of Article 1(2)(a) of Directive 2004/18.

Furthermore, ... even if the verification of the tenderers’ suitability and the award of the contract are carried out simultaneously, those two operations must be regarded as two different operations governed by different rules ...

Accordingly, criteria that are not aimed at identifying the tender which is economically the most advantageous, but are instead essentially linked to the evaluation of the tenderers’ suitability to perform the contract in question, cannot be regarded as ‘award criteria’. Criteria relating mainly to the experience, qualifications and means to ensure the proper performance of the contract concerned were considered to relate to the suitability of tenderers to perform that contract and not as ‘award criteria’, even though the contracting authority had classified them as such ...

Finally, that conclusion is in no way affected by the solution adopted in ... Ambisig ..., in which the Court pointed out, in essence, that the skills and experience of the members of the team assigned to performing the public contract may be included as award criteria in the contract notice or in the tender specifications, in so far as the quality of the performance of a contract may depend decisively on the ‘professional merit’ of the people entrusted with its performance, which is made up of their professional experience and background, particularly where the contract covers the provision of services of an intellectual nature and relates to training and advisory services.

That assessment must, however, be understood ... in the light of the contracting authority’s choice of the tender which it intended to accept from several admissible tenders. In so doing, unlike the case at issue in the main proceedings, the contracting authority, in ... Ambisig ... made a real comparison of the admissible tenders in order to identify the most economically advantageous tender. In the latter case, the experience of the proposed technical team was an intrinsic feature of the tender and was not merely a criterion for assessing the tenderers’ suitability.

It follows from the foregoing considerations that the requirements set out in the invitation to tender published by the Agency cannot constitute award criteria within the meaning of Directive 2004/18 (C-9/17, paras 33, 35-40, references omitted and emphases added).

The CJEU certainly takes an extremely formal view here, in particular because the nature of the scheme was such that potential suppliers were to offer homogeneous or equally economically advantageous tenders, given that the Agency had predefined the parameters of the provision of the services. In that regard, the contracting authority did not 'confine itself to ensuring that qualitative criteria were respected', but rather established all applicable requirements in such a way that tenderers were faced with a 'take it or leave it' set of conditions for their offers. It can thus be argued that in this case the involvement of the contracting authority was even more intense than in the context of previous cases, such as Ambisig, in that the contracting authority had even more control of the content of the future contracts.

As I already mentioned when criticising the AG Opinion (see here), this approach misunderstands how framework agreements work. Both frameworks that involve mini-competitions, where the conclusion of the framework agreement does not imply any specific choice of tender because its conditions are subject to the result of the mini-competition prior to call-off (see Art 32(4)II second indent, and now Art 33(4)(b) and (c) Dir 2014/24); as well as frameworks that already set all conditions for future call-offs without any further mini-competition, where all conditions of what constitutes the most economically advantageous tender are set at the point of concluding the framework agreement (see Art 32(4)II first indent, and now Art 33(4)(a) Dir 2014/24). Functionally, the choice-centric reasoning of the CJEU manages to be at odds with both types of framework agreements, which could be seen as incompatibly covered by a Tirkkonen-compliant interpretation of the relevant rules.

Excessively narrow goals of EU procurement law

From a broader perspective, the CJEU Judgment in Tirkkonen can also be criticised by adopting a very narrow understanding of the goals of EU public procurement law strictly based on the prevention of discrimination on the basis of nationality. This is at odds with the significant case law that stresses the importance of competition considerations in procurement.

Since its emergence in CJEU case law over twenty-five years ago (see Commission v Denmark (Bridge over the Storebaelt), C-243/89, EU:C:1993:257, para 33), the principle of competition has progressively acquired central relevance in the field of public procurement. This evolution has generally been framed by the Court as a clarification of the main goal of the successive generations of EU public procurement rules. In one of its latest formulations, the CJEU has emphasised that ‘the main objective of the rules of EU law in the field of public contracts [is] the free movement of goods and services and the opening-up of undistorted competition in all the Member States’ (see Undis Servizi, C-553/15, EU:C:2016:935, para 28). The CJEU has also recently stressed that ‘the EU rules on public procurement were adopted in pursuance of the establishment of a single market, the purpose of which is to ensure freedom of movement and eliminate restrictions on competition’ (Lloyd's of London, C-144/17, EU:C:2018:78, para 33).

Therefore, from a systemic perspective, limited doubt can be cast on the competition-orientatedness of the EU public procurement rules [see eg C Bovis, ‘The Regulation of Public Procurement as a Key Element of European Economic Law’ (1998) 4(2) European Law Review 220; R Caranta, I contratti pubblici, 2nd edn (Turin, Giappichelli, 2012) 20; for extended discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015)]. And yet, in Tirkkonen the CJEU is inconsistent in recognising the importance of the principle of competition in drawing the boundaries of EU public procurement law. Its goal is not solely to prevent discrimination on the basis of nationality, or otherwise, but to ensure that contracting authorities benefit from the outcomes that undistorted competition for public contracts generates. In that regard, it seems clear that a recognition of the broader competition goal of EU public procurement law would have required the CJEU to assess whether the decision-making process underlying the Tirkkonen case was potentially unduly restrictive of competition--which it was, given the harshness of the exclusion decision--which would have forced the Court to recognise the relevance of applying EU public procurement law to curve such type of publicly-created distortions of competition [for a proposal on how to operationalise such a test, see A Sanchez-Graells, 'Some Reflections on the 'Artificial Narrowing of Competition' as a Check on Executive Discretion in Public Procurement', in S Bogojević, X Groussot & J Hettne (eds), Discretion in EU Public Procurement Law, IECL Series (Oxford, Hart, forthcoming)].

Excessive leeway for 'strategic design' going forward -- Need to reinvent the wheel?

The Tirkkonen case is not solely problematic from a conceptual and a normative perspective, as discussed above, but also from a practical standpoint. As already mentioned when criticising the AG Opinion, on the whole, as a result of the cumulative effect of Tirkkonen and its expansion of the Falk Pharma doctrine, Member States willing to avoid compliance with EU public procurement rules could now easily do so by creating systems of ‘user/beneficiary choice’ whereby contracting authorities create the entire 'choice architecture' and the underlying contractual mechanisms, but defer the choice of the specific provider to the user (patient, in Falk Pharma, aid beneficiary, in Tirkkonen). This could be quite problematic particularly in the context of services and supply contracts, where the existence of end users detached from the contracting authority can enable this type of mechanisms.

In the extreme, if central purchasing bodies created this type of mechanisms for use by individual decision-makers (eg civil servants or public employees), the atomisation of procurement that would ensue could well result in a de-regulation of the procurement function. Procurement rules would not apply to the CPB because it would not ‘choose definitely’ the specific supplier or provider, and they may not apply to the decision to call-off that does exercise that choice if the value of the call-offs is small enough—which would then trigger litigation around the legality or less of the atomisation of the procurement decision on the last stage, for which analysis the concept of ‘separate operational units’ in Art 5(2) of Directive 2014/24/EU (see also recital (20)) would become highly relevant; see K-M Halonen, 'Characteristics of Separate Operational Units – A Study on Aggregation Rules under Public Procurement Law' (2017) report for the Competition Authority; see here. There is thus a functional need to keep proper checks and balances at the level of creation of the mechanism.

I was already concerned that Falk Pharma was eroding the scope and effectiveness of the EU public procurement rules, but Tirkkonen could magnify such undesirable effect. Moreover, this would simply displace the problem towards general EU free movement law, which is not a sensible approach in view of the more developed criteria and rules in the EU public procurement framework. There may now be a need to reinvent the wheel and 'export' to general internal market law the more sophisticated mechanisms developed in the area of EU public procurement law, which seems like a significant waste of effort. It may well be that all of this takes us full circle, but it will certainly take time and the legal uncertainty involved in the process cannot be productive.

Some may argue that this is the spillover of the CJEU's increasing deference to the Member States in the area of procurement. This is certainly something that requires some further thought. Based on conversartions with some colleagues, maybe we will manage to organise a conference in this topic in the next couple of years. Watch this space.

 

Rejection of tenders for EU research funding, any lessons for procurement? (T-76/15)

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In its Judgment of 18 January 2018 in Kenup Foundation and Others v EIT, T-76/15, EU:T:2018:9, the General Court of the Court of Justice of the EU (GC) assessed the compatibility with EU law of the rejection of a tender for funding under the Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation. Some of the GC's analysis in this context can provide interesting insights for the rejection of tenders in procedures controlled by the EU public procurement rules, if evaluation and award decisions are adopted through two-tier bodies (eg a technical evaluation and an overall 'political' decision-making). This could be particularly relevant in the context of competitive dialogues or innovation partnerships. To be sure, the Kenup case hinges on EU administrative law, but I think it raises issues that can be comparable in some domestic settings in the Member States.

In Kenup, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) issued a call for the designation of a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) in the field of innovation for healthy living and active ageing. The cooperation established between the EIT and the KIC would take the form of a framework partnership, with an initial duration of seven years, in the course of which grants could be paid by the EIT on the basis of the conclusion of specific agreements. The call for proposals established specific criteria for the exclusion, eligibility and selection of proposals, which were to be undertaken under EIT's responsibility. The decision on the designation of the KIC was subjected to a three-tier process, as follows:

According to the rules in ... that call for tenders, which the parties agree were complied with both by the independent experts and by the EIT, eligible proposals were to be evaluated by high-level independent external experts. Each proposal was thus examined by five experts, that is to say three thematic experts and two ‘horizontal’ experts, each responsible for an evaluation report for each proposal. The panel of experts was then required to draw up a consolidated evaluation report for each proposal. Next, the three proposals with the best rankings were evaluated by a second panel of high-level independent experts responsible for making a final recommendation containing an overview of those three proposals as well as recommendations for their improvement or reinforcement. Finally, representatives of the three proposals with the best scores were to be heard by the governing board before it designated the selected KIC (T-76/15, para 58).

Therefore, the decision on the designation of the KIC was to be made by the EIT's governing board, on the basis of the recommendation made by the second panel of experts, which only had to take into consideration the three top proposals as 'filtered' by the first panel of experts. In principle, this seems like a rather robust evaluation mechanism, in particular of the technical aspects of the proposals. However, it can also raise issues of compliance with rules on 'fully-informed' decision-making or 'unrestricted' executive discretion, as the Kenup case evidences.

In response to the call for proposals, the Kenup consortium submitted a tender under the coordination of the Stiftung Universität Lüneburg. After assessment of the proposals received in accordance with the evaluation mechanism described above, the governing board of EIT selected a  proposal for the KIC and rejected the other proposals, including Kenup's. Kenup then challenged the EIT's decision on several grounds, including issues concerned with an alleged failure by EIT to state the reasons for its decision, as well as a breach of the principles of transparency and equal treatment of tenderers.

All of these arguments are common place in the challenge of procurement decisions and their analysis would have been interesting. However, the case was decided solely on an issue concerning the implicit constraints on the exercise of executive discretion by the EIT's governing board due to the initial 'filtering' of proposals by a panel of high-level experts. This merits some close analysis.

As presented by the GC,

It follows from the evaluation process for the proposals ... that the panel of experts responsible for the final recommendation only had to examine the three proposals with the best scores following the evaluation by the first panel of experts. In addition, only representatives of those three proposals were to be heard by the governing board. In that regard, it should be noted that the call for proposals clearly indicated that the KIC would be selected by the EIT on the basis, first, of the consolidated evaluation reports relating to the three best proposals, as established by the panel of experts, secondly, of the report drawn up by the panel responsible for the final recommendation and, thirdly, of the outcome of the hearings. Accordingly, the EIT was required to make its selection only on the basis of the work carried out by the independent experts on the three proposals with the best scores and the outcome of the hearings carried out with the representatives of those proposals.

... the members of the governing board had access, via a protected website, to all the proposals submitted for the KIC on ‘Innovation for healthy living and active ageing’, including the Kenup consortium’s proposal. Furthermore, before the hearings, the director of the EIT indicated to the governing board the various stages of the evaluation procedure, including the various scores awarded overall and for sub-criteria to the five proposals submitted. However, none of the analyses of the Kenup consortium’s proposal carried out by the independent experts were submitted to the members of the governing board. Annex 1 to the information note of 1 December 2014 drawn up by the director of the EIT for the members of the governing board, produced by the EIT at the Court’s request, included merely a summary of the evaluation reports drawn up by the panel of experts relating solely to the proposals selected for the hearings. In addition, it does not follow from the procedure for the call for proposals, nor is it claimed, that members of the governing board attended the experts’ working sessions.

It is true, as the EIT maintains in its defence, that members of the governing board were free to raise questions and to request additional information concerning all the proposals and their evaluation by the experts. However, ... the members of the governing board did not possess any of the evaluations or a summary of the evaluations carried out by the panel of experts concerning the two proposals not selected for the hearings.

In any event, any initiatives of the governing board were unlikely to call into question the fact that only the three proposals with the best scores awarded by the experts could have been designated as the KIC on ‘Innovation for healthy living and active ageing’. The procedure established by the call for proposals entirely ruled out any possibility of the governing board’s selecting the Kenup consortium’s proposal and inviting its representatives to participate in the hearings, since that proposal was ranked in fourth position by the independent experts. That finding is confirmed by the wording of the letter of 10 December 2014 informing the coordinator of the Kenup consortium that its proposal had been rejected, which clearly links that exclusion with the ranking of the consortium’s proposal below third place. On that point, it may be noted ... that, in its reply to their request for further information, the EIT stated that the experts had been granted, by the call for proposals, a delegated power to preselect proposals.

Therefore, in accordance with the procedure defined in the call for proposals, the governing board could, following the hearings, only alter the ranking of the three best proposals selected by the experts ... The fact that, according to Article 15 of Regulation No 1290/2013, the selection of a KIC is made on the basis of the ranking of the proposals, in accordance with the evaluation carried out by independent experts, cannot mean that the EIT is bound, even in part, as regards the order of the proposals thus selected.

67      It follows from all the foregoing considerations that the applicants are justified in maintaining that the governing board failed fully to exercise its powers in respect of the selection of proposals, in breach of the provisions of Article 4 of Regulation No 294/2008, those powers having been delegated in part to experts without that board having, at any time, had the opportunity to make a proper assessment of the work they carried out on the proposals which were not ranked in the first three places (T-76/15, paras 61-65 & 67, emphases added).

As mentioned above, the Kenup Judgment is largely conditioned by a point of EU administrative law concerning the implicit delegation of the power to preselect proposals to the initial high-level expert panel. However, I find the case troubling in that context, and for any implications it could have in the context of procurement covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package. I have two main issues with this Judgment.

First, and foremost, that it seems to follow the worrying trend of disrespect for expert opinion. Implicit in the GC Judgment, there is an assumption that the governing board of EIT would have been able to challenge expert reports prepared in a seemingly robust manner. This seems difficult to share. Either the independent technical evaluation was needed because the governing board does not have the expertise (or time) to sift through all proposals--in which case the assumption that the governing board will look at all documents and sort of reassess all proposals from scratch is ludicrous--or it was not needed at all, and should be abandoned--which seems equally unpersuasive. More generally, it seems that the GC misunderstands the context and boundaries of the executive discretion given to EIT's governing board by the relevant EU provisions, as well as the fact that EIT had endorsed the specific evaluation mechanism (thus potentially self-constraining any broader discretion it may have had, in a manner that the GC hardly demonstrates to run contrary to any relevant constraints). From that perspective, this Judgment is at best extremely formalistic and, at worse, simply misguided.

Second, and also of importance, depending on the rules applicable under the general administrative law of the Member States, the thrust of the Kenup Judgment can result in significant difficulties (and potential challenges) in the context of complex procurement procedures where the overall (political) decision-making is supported by one or several rounds of technical evaluation aimed at filtering the initial proposals into shortlists or recommendations. If the logic in the Kenup Judgment was adopted, and the ultimate decision-makers of the contracting authorities and entities covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package were required to have before them (and effectively engage with) the entirety of the documentation with a view to (potentially) challenging technical evaluations, complex procurement procedures could become exceedingly burdensome and/or (even more of a) box-ticking exercise. Moreover, it would be possible to generate inadvertent corruption risks if the non-expert (ie political) board could second-guess or deviate from robust technical assessments and have unfettered discretion. This would run in stark contrast with the case law of the CJEU on award criteria and unlimited freedom to choose a tender.

Consequently, my overall view of the Kenup Judgment is that it does not offer any valuable (or at least useful) lesson for procurement, and that the GC would have been well-advised to have followed the opposite direction of travel. By taking into consideration the case law on procurement that requires discretion to be constrained by solid technical evaluation, the decision in Kenup could (and should) have been the opposite. I can only hope that this case is limited to the way EU research funding is administered, and that the Kenup Judgment results in a change of EIT's internal governance rules in a way that preserves and enhances the role of independent high-level technical evaluations against the erosion that the GC's Judgment has generated.

CJEU clarifies obligation of national supreme and constitutional courts to refer preliminary questions (C-322/16)

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In its Judgment of 20 December 2017 in Global Starnet, C-322/16, EU:C:2017:985, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) followed the Opinion of AG Wahl and clarified that a national court of last instance is under an Art 267 TFEU obligation to refer a question for preliminary ruling to the CJEU even if the constitutional court of that Member State has already assessed the constitutionality of national rules in the light of regulatory parameters with content similar to rules under EU law.

The case concerned the amendment of the terms of licences for the online operation of gaming during their term, and the challenge was based on principles of legal certainty and protection of legitimate expectations, which are common to EU law and to the constitutional frameworks of the EU's Member States (in this case, Italy). From that perspective, the Global Starnet Judgment can be particularly relevant for cases involving claims based on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and could create a push for a more significant role for the CJEU as a constitutional court for the Union.

There are a few passages of the Global Starnet Judgment that I find particularly interesting:

... a national court which, in a case concerning EU law, considers that a provision of national law is not only contrary to EU law, but also unconstitutional, does not lose the right, or escape the obligation under Article 267 TFEU, to refer questions to the Court of Justice on the interpretation or validity of EU law by reason of the fact that the declaration that a rule of national law is unconstitutional is subject to a mandatory reference to the constitutional court. The effectiveness of EU law would be in jeopardy if the existence of an obligation to refer a matter to a constitutional court could prevent a national court hearing a case governed by EU law exercising the right conferred on it by Article 267 TFEU to refer to the Court questions concerning the interpretation or validity of EU law in order to enable it to decide whether or not a provision of national law was compatible with that EU law ...

... the effectiveness of EU law would be impaired and the effectiveness of Article 267 TFEU diminished if, as a result of there existing a procedure for review of constitutionality, the national court were precluded from referring questions to the Court for a preliminary ruling and immediately applying EU law in a manner consistent with the Court’s decision or case-law ...

Furthermore, although it is true that the procedure laid down in Article 267 TFEU is an instrument for cooperation between the Court of Justice and the national courts, by means of which the former provides the latter with the points of interpretation of EU law necessary in order for them to decide the disputes before them, the fact remains that when there is no judicial remedy under national law against the decision of a court or tribunal of a Member State, that court or tribunal is, in principle, obliged to bring the matter before the Court of Justice under the third paragraph of Article 267 TFEU where a question relating to the interpretation of EU law is raised before it ...

The fact that the [domestic Constitutional Court] gave a ruling on the compatibility of the provisions of national law ... with the provisions of the [national] Constitution which the referring court regarded as constituting, in essence, the same regulatory parameters as [EU law] has no bearing on the obligation, laid down in Article 267 TFEU, to refer questions concerning the interpretation of EU law to the Court of Justice (C-322/16, paras 21 & 23-25, references omitted and emphases added).

More discussion of damages for breach of EU procurement rules

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Dr Ignacio Herrera Anchistegui has organised a greatly interesting BECCLE seminar on "Damages for breach of Public Procurement Law – Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS and its implications". It will take place this Thursday 1 March 2018 in Bergen. I have the pleasure and honour of presenting my views on the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen Judgment and to provide a comparative view with the UK Supreme Court's decision in Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. These are issues I had already addressed in the blog (see here and here) and, in trying to provide a more comprehensive critique of the case at the seminar, I have now tried to restructure my initial ideas and develop them in some more detail in a new SSRN working paper.

I hope the discussion will provide plenty additional ideas and food for thought, and I will try to improve the paper after the BECCLE seminar in view of that. Any additional comments or feedback on how to get it ready for publication would also be most welcome: a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk. Thank you for reading.

The abstract is as follows:

This paper offers some reflections on the position advanced by the EFTA Court that a simple breach of EU public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the contracting authority's liability in damages (Fosen-Linjen). I argue that this position is flawed because it deviates from previous case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (Spijker), and because it is based on interpretive errors and internal contradictions in the EFTA Court's reasoning. In criticising the EFTA Court's Judgment from the perspective of the harmonisation of EU law, I rely on the better view of the UK Supreme Court. The latter held that the liability of a contracting authority for the breach of EU public procurement rules under the remedies directive is assimilated to that of the State under the general EU law doctrine of State liability and thus requires a sufficiently serious breach (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority). My reflections are based on the need to keep procurement damages litigation constrained to its main function and limited to justified cases. I use this normative position to argue against the expansion of private enforcement of EU public procurement law as a correction of the shortcomings in its public enforcement.

The full reference of the paper is: A Sanchez-Graells, 'You Can't Be Serious: Critical Reflections on the Liability Threshold for Damages Claims for Breach of EU Public Procurement Law' (February 24, 2018). Presented at the BECCLE seminar on 'Public Procurement and Damages,' University of Bergen, 1 March 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3129430.

New paper on competition-based checks on executive discretion in procurement

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I have just uploaded on SSRN a new working paper where I try to operationalise a substantive and procedural test for the enforcement of the principle of competition enshrined in Article 18(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU. The paper is still very much work in progress and I will need to revise it before final publication in an edited collection, so any feedback or comments would be most welcome.

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

In this paper, I go beyond prior general discussion on the place for and implications of a competition goal or principle within the EU public procurement architecture and aim to operationalise the 'competition-based constraints' on the exercise of executive discretion that derive from the prohibition to 'artificially narrow down competition'. I do so in relation to the exercise of discretion for the inclusion of social, green and human rights clauses in tender documentation. The first part of the paper revisits the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the inclusion of environmental, social and labour requirements in procurement procedures, and fleshes out the ways in which competition considerations have underpinned the Court's assessment of the exercise of executive discretion in the design of tender procedures. The second part proposes a presumption-based substantive balancing test between, on the one hand, these 'competition-based constraints' and, on the other hand, the needs of 'responsible procurement' derived from the mandate to ensure environmental, social and labour compliance. The third part takes the alternative approach of a test of procedural traceability and considers the documentary obligations that contracting authorities need to discharge in relation with the exercise of executive discretion to propose the creation of a safe harbour to modulate the operation of the substantive presumption. I conclude reflecting on the desirability of the proposed tests in the context of future litigation.

The full citation of the paper is A Sanchez-Graells, 'Some Reflections on the 'Artificial Narrowing of Competition' as a Check on Executive Discretion in Public Procurement', in S Bogojević, X Groussot & J Hettne (eds), Discretion in EU Public Procurement Law, IECL Series (Hart, forthcoming). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3125304.